Monday, August 24, 2015

Electra, My Love

Miklós Jancsó adapted the stageplay by L. Gyurkó, Szerelmem, Elektra, into the 1974 film Electra, My Love. The film is very watchable as cinema ... for some viewers (to judge by the reviews!). As a usage of classical mythology it is quite remarkable. Its 71 minutes constitute one of my best Netflix rentals in an active year.

The narrative adapts the Orestes myth to the milieu of Soviet-occupied, post-1956 Hungary so as to incite in the audience’s minds active emulation of classical role models who risked dire consequences to revolt against pervasive tyranny. When Gyurkó wrote the play in 1968, a little more than a decade had passed since the failed revolution of 1956, which the Russians quashed. In the film's present, it has been fifteen years since Clytemnestra murdered Agamemnon and now ten years since the queen herself passed away. Aegisthus rules a populace that proclaims felicity, and Aegisthus is a tyrant who willingly admits to Electra the necessity of bloody discipline: "Roads must be paved with skulls and walls plastered with cries. I don't like blood, Electra. But it buys order."

The film opens with an allusion to Sophocles' Electra. Chryosthemis urges Electra to forget and move on. Because Sophocles instituted the character of Chrysothemis, we expect the narrative to unfold along Sophoclean lines. The film, however, scarcely follows that anticipated path. For Sophocles' drama focuses on the psychology of a daughter who will kill her mother in the name of justice. Jancsó's telling has another directive to deliver. Revolution and regime-change are the message here, not the standard fare for an oresteia. Indeed, in Aeschylus' hands the message of the oresteia was all about reconciliation. With Gyurkó and Jancsó the last Tantalids are all about revolution. Neither sibling is actually capable of contriving tyrannicide alone; but, their dynamic combination achieves the necessary energy that eliminates Aegisthus and his cronies.

Cinematically, too, the film is remarkable. 71 minutes are covered by about one ten principle shots, each about as lengthy as a mid-70's film processing could manage. [See listing below.]  Jancsó opens this film with a remarkable "oner" 11-minute shot. It sets the cinematic tone for the film. Essentially, Jancsó shoots each section of each act in one shot. Like paragraph markings in a book, or scenery changes on a stage, the cuts mark strophes in this elaborate orchestration. A tremendous amount of orchestration has gone into every single shot. More like an analogue ballet than an edited film, the Jancsó’s visual narrative involves tremendously precise blocking from sometimes hundreds of actors and not a few dozen wild horses. It’s pretty stunning. The first very long sequence constitutes orchestration of several dozen actors, two glimpses at the setting sun, the wrangling of a herd of wild horses, the choreography of a lean swordsman, three dwarves with cymbals, and about 40 lines of dialogue between Electra, Aegisthus, and his deputy tyrannt. The opening sequence will leave no doubt in any viewer's mind: we are definitely not in Kansas here. This is an artsy film.

You can get an appreciation for this blocking in Richard Brody’s New Yorker online clip from 24 August 2010, which shows about half the opening shot. (See the link on my OGCMA slide.)

A ministrel with a folk guitar constantly crisscrosses the film. He is a balladeer with a song about Orestes' epic return. Mind you, the hero is not named in the song. But the foreboding arrival of the revolutionary is going to be as monumental as it is going to be epic.  The minstrel sings:
Though cornered, he stayed alive.
A master at this game. 
Lost warrriors greet him. 

Stones ask me, grass implores me
People come to me crying
and shatter the rock of my wanderings.
Fiery steeds stand before the sun and the moon. 
I'll take their manes
to make a scarlet cloak
Swallows shoot the dawn
By the time I get my freedom.
the gate I'll open wide,
And break the wagon of bondage. 
The stranger is familiar
yet we know him not. 

We knew from afar it was him.  
We know his horse's step.
Lost warriors greeet him. 
See him alone on the plain. 
The people await him. 
D'you hear his horse's steps?
It can only be him.

The people await him....
It can only be him.

     Elektra, My Love is all about justice. But it is also about the politics of revolution. Electra's alter-ego is an attractive brunette in the sheer blouse (Mária Bajcsay) who administers the message of the party's leaders. Kikiáltó, "the Herald", is this character's name in the film's credits. She enters the film with reports of Agamemnon's murder, fifteen years ago. In an orchestrated account of local political history she chants the story of Agamemnon's demise. "Since then the people are happy." And  nobody would deny it — not openly, at any rate, given the iron-fisted support she musters. Men crack whips and long lines of the people voice their support, after Kikiáltó reminds them of dire punishments that await those who resist. This is the annual feast day of Agamemnon's death and Aegisthus' rise to power. And she presents Electra to the assembled people at the moment where the regime expects her to recant. When Electra proclaims, instead, the full truth of her belief in the regime's corruption, they stop their ears. Today will bring change, Electra vows; but it will not transpire before we behold the regime's lies.

You may not feel like watching it, because there is a good deal of female nudity in it (and some male nudity, as well). The nudity makes the film unusable in a BYU context, but it needn’t render the film unwatchable for a discerning viewer. For, the film's use of nudity is largely de-eroticized. The disclosure of the human body — primarily female in Jancsó's treatement — illustrates the depravity of the regime that fosters it. When the tyrants themselves are compelled to dance naked, their weakness is most overtly manifest. Electra, on the other hand, is fully covered in a dark dress throughout the film, wrists to neckline clothed in a dark dress.

       The Herald's quasi-erotic affinity for the Chief (Vezér; played by Lajos Balázsovits), the handsome young man in the linen frock. Though nude women appear  frequently throughout this film, one fully nude male only appears. After the regime change and under the administration of Electra, the Chief is compelled to serve naked and dance with his Herald. The nudity they earlier inflicted upon countless others now symbolizes the humility to which Electra so dearly subjects them. Later Orestes clothes them before administering his form of justice. Whether the Herald is also killed is left unclear, but the Chief certainly falls.

The concluding scene is kind of weird. Every talks about it. Reminiscence of a Euripidean deus ex machina is certainly there, when a red helicopter intrudes upon the a-chronistic landscape the director has contrived for the audience. Only a handgun had broken the illusion, quite late in the film. Besides that ... and the helicopter! ... Electra's collision with Aegisthus has occured in a world altogether devoid of machinery. The ending is all a bit jarring. As the revolutionary protagonists, Electra and Orestes, rise in a symbolic resurrection and the people sing a hymn of the Phoenix bird, the prospects of Soviet-style socialists seem to wane. By the film's last frames, Electra and Orestes exude a confidence and optimism that suggests their audience might someday succeed in rising above the tyranny that has held them down for so long.

Electra, My Love is distributed on DVD by Facets Multimedia. I might expect Criterion to have picked it up first. The disc would benefit from the inclusion of such historical commentary as Criterion might arrange.

If you get a chance to see Electra, My Love (1974, Miklos Jancsó = Szerelmem, Elektra) is an astonishing usage of classical mythology. And the Hungarian play from which the film is adapted would seem to warrant an English translation. I have located German and French translations, but no English published translation of the Gyurkó play.

—— RTM

The oners:
11:15 - 20:25
22:45 - 32:00
40:50 - 42:00 (electra smiles at the camera)
42:00 - 43:30 horses in twilight — regime change
43:30 - 46:25
46:30 - 54:00 the ballet of the Herald and the Chief, approach of the ball pushed by horses, discussion with Orestes, arrival and song of the minstrel
54:00 -  1:01    Begins with Aegisthus on a gigantic ball, execution, "This story is at an end", piano music, Orestes and Electra wander away from the camera zigzagging, numerous corpses strewn on the field, , Our story's just starting", starting each day anew, they are covered by a shroud,
1:01 - end epilogue: Orestes and Electra are up and walking, smiling, embracing, arrival of helicopter — discussion of the firebird and its fomenting of revolution

Monday, May 11, 2015

Petersen's Troy scrunches the denouement

Achilles died at Troy, shot by Paris’ arrow precisely in the critical spot. Apollodorus gives half the credit to Apollo: “Achilles was shot in the ankle by Alexander and Apollo at the Scaean Gates.” (Bibl. Epit. 5.4) This scene is set outside the Trojan walls (πρὸς ταῖς Σκυλαιαῖς πύλαις). Apollodorus’ concise narrative entails several intervening phases between Achilles’ death and the construction of Epeus’ Horse (Epit. 6.15-17).  In Apollodorus’ conglomerate account, the Trojan War hardly comes to a close at Achilles’ death. Until Wolfgang Petersen told the story (with David Beniot’s screenplay), it hadn’t occurred to me that Achilles might have gotten inside the city. And, if
he had penetrated the citadel, what might me have done?

Homer’s Iliad focuses all the events of the Trojan War, of course, on the development and cessation of Achilles’ rage. Sown in the quarrel with Agamemnon over Briseis in Book 1, the persistent wrath of the godlike hero is abated in the Homeric masterpiece-scene of Book 24. Once Priam receives Hector’s brutalized corpse, the great epic narrative closes quickly. And details of Achilles’ own fate mix into a quick narrative close. Achilles’ ill disposition is satisfactorily but summarily concluded without further narrative development. It has all come down to this.

Extra-Homeric classical tradition attributes three major events to the life of Achilles after the critical moment of ransoming Hector’s body.  Penthesileia still has Achilles’ heart to win. Thersites will still perish for his mockery of Achilles’ abiding infatuation with the Amazon. And Memnon will still fall to Achilles’ prowess. Nor does Homer take time to narrate the collective reaction to Achilles’ death, the funeral games, the burial beside Patroclus on Leuke, the contest for Achilles’ armor. These elements of the epic tradition are fully outside the scope of Homer’s Achillean narrative, which effectively closes down at Il. 24.675. Once Achilles sees Peleus in Priam, the world instantly changes, and the brutalizer becomes humane.

Homer’s final glimpse at Achilles has him lying down to sleep with lovely Briseis inside his tent. Priam retires outside but beneath the tent’s awning. Homer pays no attention to Achilles’ reaction to Priam’s furtive departure in the night. Was he going to order a Myrmidon’s breakfast for Priam in the morning? We never know. Instead, Homer’s Priam, safely conveyed, tacitly oversees the burial of Hector that it proceed as Achilles had provided (24.650-58). And within about 100 lines of Priam’s departure from Achilles’ tent, the great epic closes tersely with one line: “Thus they performed the burial of Hector breaker of horses.” (24.804) Just 150 lines earlier, one might not have anticipated that outcome might never transpire.

The Ransom’s powerful denouement can scarcely be understated. Narrating the Ransom’s conception, planning, execution, and effect fill the entirety of Book 24. Apollo’s urging begins the events that reverse the impasse that has pertained since the epic’s outset. The Ransom occupies the space and pathos commensurate with its narrative importance. Achilles has descended to beastial conduct; he emerges as the Greek alliance’s true king. And Homer’s rhetorical approach leaves the poet with nothing further to tell.

About 20 minutes remain in Petersen’s film when Priam enters Achilles’ tent by night. Repeated viewings find me asking myself whether the scene resonates only because it’s Petersen’s truest re-creation of a poignant Homeric moment. It succeeds because the scene’s internal elements correspond quite closely to the narrative in Iliad 24, but perhaps there’s more. The interlocutors say less here than they do in Homer.

Priam:    I cannot change what happened. It is the will of the gods. Give me this small mercy.
Achilles:    silence
Priam:    I loved my boy from the moment he opened his eyes until the moment you closed them. Let me wash his body. Let me say the prayers.  Let me place two coins on his eyes for the boatman.
Achilles:    silence —  If I let you walk out of here… If I let you take him, it doesn’t change anything. — You’re still my enemy in the morning.
Priam:    You’re still my enemy tonight. But even enemies can show respect.
Achilles:    silence — I admire your courage. Meet me outside in a moment.

Besides merely ransoming Hector’s body, Petersen’s cinematic scene narrates a three-fold expansion beyond Homer’s: Achilles’ expression of affection for Hector (“my brother”), the relinquishment of Briseis to the Trojans, the parting shot that Priam is, in Achilles’ judgment, “a far better king than the one leading this army.” Homer needed the scene to do one thing. Petersen/Beniot require it to do three.

That indirect jab at the absent Agamemnon plays upon Petersen’s primary theme in the film, that unworthy kingship is ugly. Accordingly, the film’s narrative hinges on Achilles’ barb and cuts immediately to the face of Agamemnon’s outrage: “What business does Achilles have cutting deals with the enemy?!”  Agamenon’s impiety is matched only by his Gulf-War military mismangement: “Even if it costs me 40,000 Greeks, I will smash their walls to the ground. Hear me, Zeus! I will smash their walls to the ground.” Coming from a man who throughout the film has manifest nothing but irreverence for the gods, this oath is scarcely reverend.

Achilles, on the other hand, comes away from the Ransom a sincerely changed man. This is true both in Homer and in Petersen. In the film, though, the hero now kisses men, living and dead, on the cheek and on the forehead. He decides to withdraw the Myrmidons from the war’s finale.  “I don’t want the men to be a part of this.” We know they have twelve days to get out of Troy, the timeframe dictated by the moratorium Achilles unilaterally offered as king to King Priam for Hector’s funeral rites. Petersen’s Achilles, further, maintains an inclination to abide Troy’s sack so that he can protect virtue to the last. One final beheading of a Greek, one last kiss for Briseis, and he’s gone. Had he merely slipped away, Petersen’s Achilles would not have perished.

This resumes the first matter I mentioned at the outset. Why does Achilles stay at Troy, if he doesn’t want his men to “be part of” the sack of Troy? In Petersen’s film, Achilles charges into the heart of burning Troy in order to save Briseis from Agamemnon’s ravishment and (maybe) death. In the end  
(of Agamemnon), Briseis shows that she has learned a thing or two from her Thessalian lover, but Achilles himself is also needed for her full extrication. Their final dialogue ends the film.

Achilles: It’s all right. Its’ all right. Fondling Briseis’ hair, as Paris comes closer for the kill. You gave me peace in a lifetime of war.
Paris:        Briseis, Come.
Briseis:      No
Achilles:    You must. Troy is fallen. Go. Begin anew. … It’s alright. Go. They kiss. Go. She departs with Paris. Achilles dies peacefully. The POV rises upward to long crane shot tracking his soul’s POV, to contrast the grassy lawn where Achilles's body lies with the burning houses of Troy. — Cut to Odysseus’ ponderous lighting of Achilles’ funeral pyre inside the Trojan citadel.
Odysseus: places coins on Achilles’ eyes. Find peace, My Brother.
Odysseus: voice over: If they ever tell my story, let them say that I walked with giants.  Men rise and fall like the winter wheat; but these names will never die. Let them say I lived in the time of Hector, breaker of horses. Let them say I lived in the time of Achilles.

Because I promised — and tried to teach my class sincerely — that I would not be distracted by Wolfgang Petersen’s narrative “inauthenticities” in Troy, I will gladly grant the poetic license the film’s direct uses throughout the film. I bite my tongue, rather than gripe, that Achilles dies after Priam in the sack of Troy. For Aeneid 2 to work, Neoptolemus’ father Achilles must already be among the shades at the moment he kills Priam. Vergil’s chronology always makes me uneasy, anyway. But I still think that Vergil’s a great poet than Petersen, even if they do work in different media.

Traditional tellings of the Iliupersis have Achilles involved as agressor to the end, storming Troy’s citadel and stirring it up to the last. Homer, of course, doesn’t go this far. 

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Dwayne Johnson as Hercules is not at all bad.

The first 5 minutes of Brett Ratner's 2014 Hercules (I) conveys a remarkable point succinctly: This is not an entirely conventional Heracles narrative. A handful of divergences begin to flow quickly by. The Radical Comics graphic novel by Steve Moore clearly deserves closer inspection. Where the screenplay diverges from Moore's creation will reward analysis; in this quick blogpost I focus on details in the screenplay by Ryan Condal and Even Spiliotopoulos directed by Ratner.

OGCMA0551NOTHeracles_Ratner: Hercules (aka son of Zeus) is flanked
by Iolaus and Atalanta.
     The Maecedonian Coast in 358 B.C. is an extraordinary time — if not also place — to set a mythic narrative. The year 358 B.C. is well within the frame of history, half a century after the demise of the Athenian Empire and well within the period of Maecdonia's meteoric rise under Philip. It is hardly the period one might assign, if one had to, to the time when a demigod roved upon the earth.

The film opens with a partial explication of the Heracles' canonical labors. Three alone are needed to get Ratner's narrative under way. And the three are told in a rather inverted sequence with dramatic crescendo: Lernean Hydra, Erymanthean Boar, and the Nemean Lion. Typically, in Classical mythology, the Lion that roves the hills above Tiryns near Nemea comes first, the Hydra bred in the swamp of Lerna comes second, and the Boar on Mt Erymanthus is the fourth canonical Labor. 

We soon learn that the three labors are being narrated by a young captive, who is presently afflicted with a bit of hero worship and the vicious designs of his captors. This narrator will turn out to be none other than Iolaus, a nephew of Heracles who canonically helps Heracles slay the Hydra (but not here).

Before Iolaus' identity is learned, though, the most remarkable element of Ratner's Heracles narrative comes clean: this brawny hero is accompanied by a cast of super-heroic sidekicks. The team is a remarkable hybridization from the myths that deal with the generation before the Trojan War.

Autolycos — played with deft comic timing by Ian McShane, Autolycus is mythologically the maternal grandfather of Odysseus; by some later accounts he is the son of Hermes; in Homer he outstrips all mortals in "thievery and (ambiguous) swearing" (Od. 19.394ff) and one perpetrated a memorable theft (Il. 10.367).

Atalanta — brings a strong female to Heracles' supporting team, Atalanta is mythologically a veteran of the Calydonian Boar Hunt, the defender of her chastity against the advances of centaurs Rhoecus and Hylaeus whom she slew, and sworn to perpetual virginity as hunting companion of Artemis. If I have seen Ingrid Bolsø Berdal in a previous film, I have not notice her.

Amphiaraus — a participant in the Seven Against Thebes expedition, Amphiaraus is a rather shadowy character in classical mythology. He was bribed by Polynices with the necklace of Harmonia to march against Eteocles' Thebean defenders; other myths have him killed by Zeus' thunderbolt and swallowed with his chariot into the gaping earth. Since Rufus Sewell plays him in this film, people will notice him closely.

Tydeus — a berzerker with a menacing headwound, in this film, and a propensity for dog-like behavior, Tydeus also — as the others here — technically antedates the Trojan War. The father of Diomedes in myth (not overtly in this film), Tydeus is so bloodthirsty that he slew Ismene (Aesch. Septem 377ff.) and impiously devoured the brains of Melanippus. Aksel Hennie plays this character with convincingly crazed demeanor.

and Iolaus — the boy here who strives to be like Hercules is in mythology the nephew of Heracles who assists in one Labor (the Hydra) but forebears from assistance when Eurystheus disqualifies any of Heracles' tasks that include assistance. Reece Ritchie is amusing in this part.

Why the side-kicks are so intriguing to me may be summed up in one particular observation pertaining to Heracles' canonically assigned Second Labor, the slaying of the Lernean Hydra. According to Apollodoros Libr. 2.5.2, "Eurystheus ordered Heracles to kill the Lernaean Hydra, a water creature bred in the swamp of Lerna, which invaded dry land destroying livestock and ravaging fields." Though heroically successful in "overcoming the growing heads, then cutting off the immortal one", Heracles' effort was disqualified by Eurystheus who said that Heracles "had not conquered the Hydra alone but with the help of Iolaus." From that moment forth, Heracles always acted as a soloist. In classical mythology it is typically the far inferior hero Jason who assembles a dream-team of helpers to foster his great quest.

So, where does this leave me? I'm at the "that" part of my consideration of this compelling film. It's clear that the narrative belonging to Moore, Spiliotopoulos, Condal, and Ratner is aware of classical mythological ancestry. The development of a hero-with-sidekicks narrative seems right for the comic-book age. I need to turn the corner and explain now the "why" of all this remarkable alteration. And especially intriguing will be answering why Hercules now in a sceptical post-9/11 age needs helpers and why these helpers especially come to the fore.

—— RTM

Monday, March 30, 2015

CAMWS scholars present numerous papers on mythological usages

The CAMWS (Classical Association of the Middle-West and South) annual meeting 2015 took place this last weekend in Boulder. Four full sessions on the first day of papers treated the reception of classics kept me busy for a very instructive day. The next day featured two further sessions, nearly four more hours!, in the afternoon. While not all paper-topics in these sessions pertain to the reception of classical mythology, every one taught me something new. The papers that fit into the scope of the MythMatters blog receive here some commentary, even if they deserve much more. The abstracts for the papers are published at

Meredith E. Safran (Trinity College) talked about “The Heraklean and Promethean Protagonists of Supernatural (2005-2015).” I learned from Safran to regard Supernatural as a “post 9/11 narrative”. Having watched a grand total of one episode of the CW series, I could still follow Safran’s detailed explication of how characterization of the one Winchester brother manifests systematic allusion to the traits of Heracles from Greek mythographical sources. The classical Heracles’ famously voracious appetites for food and sex play subtly into the character of the monster-slaying protagonist. Numerous details were presented in Safran’s compelling treatment. All the way from his near-miss brush with death in the cradle to his consumption of ginormous sandwiches, according to Safran, the character is drawn with intentional similarity to Heracles. Prometheus got somewhat shorter schrift; but, I quite enjoyed learning about the numerous characters in Supernatural whose attributes involve the great Titan’s willful recalcitrance.  Even though she presented less information about the one episode of Supernatural I know — I watched “Remember the Titans” (season 10, ep. 13) for its Prometheus content, because current myth student Danielle Orrock’s spectacular paper— Safran dealt with this particular episode in Q&A.

Polly Hoover (Wright College) read a paper about “Theo Angelopoulous’ The Traveling Players and the Transformation of Aeschylus’ Oresteia.” This is a film I have never seen, but its usage of the Orestes myth was presented in an engaging way. The play-within-the film, a traveling production of a drama called “Gorgo the Shepherdess”, brings together several elements of an oresteia, and the film’s narrative frame has only one character named after the mythological Tantalids. Others assume roles like unto Aegisthus, Agamemnon and so forth.

Yasuko Taoka (Southern Illinois University) treated compelling questions of mythological reception in her paper “Reception and Pastiche in Peter Milligan’s Greek Street.” Taoka showed that the creator of the graphic novel Greek Street raises matters of reception in a rather sophisticated way. As gritty and off-putting as Milligan’s unpleasant style may be, the narrative includes characters who know their classical mythology. And Taoka left the audience reconsidering whether a low-brow façade can front a useful mythological reception. One wonders whether the reader to whom the cartoon’s sleaze and gore will appeal most is going to care about the high-brow ideas Taoka introduced today. I think she is raising serious question about the groundrules for reception studies. Whether I will dig deeper into the Greek Street narratives, I have to admit that today’s paper made me think.

Summer Trentin (Metropolitan State University of Denver) walked us through Raphael’s fresco cycle on Cupid and Psyche in the Chigi Villa Farnesina. “Apuleius and Intellectualism in Raphael’s Loggia of Psyche” was a well illustrated talk. Even if Trentin’s pictures were primarily available in public domain online, it was still delightful to walk virtually through the Psyche cycle with a trained expert. Q&A brought out some detail pertaining to the specifically named Neo-Platonism that the presenter had grouped into the rubric of “intellectualism” during the paper.

      I regret that another commitment kept me from hearing Sarah G. Titus (University of Washington) discuss “Socrates, Fénelon, and Kauffman: negotiating identity through common experience”.  It was reported as a very fine paper.  
       The 1699 didactic prose work Les avantures de Télémaque by François de Salignac De La Mothe-Fénelon was tremendously influential in the 18th Century in Europe and then secondarily in 19th-century America. It is a myth built neo-classically into the narrative space Homer and the classical tragedians left wide open, namely the experiences of Telmachus after the Odyssey’s conclusion. Familiar faces from Homer are there: Idomeneus, Nestor (again), Athena (though called Minerva, of course), the Sirens, and many others are all here.

         The panel on recent literary reception of the classics capped the afternoon quite nicely, with a session of five good papers. Catherine M. Schlegel (University of Notre Dame) explicated “Auden’s Homer: ‘The Shield of Achilles.’” Sarah H. Nooter (University of Chicago) read “The Loss of telos: the Oresteia of Athol Fugard.” This paper left me thinking that I will have to examine connections between Fugard’s play and Tug Yourgrau’s Song of Jacob Zulu, which I addressed in an earlier Mythmatters blogpost. Though Sarah Ahbel Rappe (University of Michigan) was unable to attend, her paper was read in absentia: “Teaching ‘Toni Morrison and the Classical Tradition’ as a Course in the State Prison System” is a personal experience of Rappe’s reading classical tragic texts with convicted felons in the Michigan penal system. Remarkably, many of these women have experienced first-hand the very unspeakable crimes that the classical tragedians narrate. Especially because a student in my myth course last week told me that Medea-like crimes “statistically never happen,” Rappe’s account was personally moving for me.
Finally, the afternoon’s most passionate paper was delivered by Carolin Hahnemann (Kenyon College): “Translucent Transplants: on the sublime similes in Alice Oswald’s Memorial.” Hahnemann demonstrated intimate familiarity with the formidable 2012 poem. Because Oswald’s poem focuses on the mythological elements of Homer’s Iliad, the poem deserves to be included in the OGCMA’s next edition. Hahnemann has been lecturing much on Oswald’s rather innovative reception of Homer and the Troy War myth. Let’s call it OGCMA1047NOTTrojanWar_Oswald.

On Friday, an entire session treated classical reception in music. And the topics were broadly divergent. Byron Stayskal (Western Washington University) presented on “Innovation and Tradition: Charon in the Libretto of Claudio Monteverdi’s Orfeo.” Robyn M. Rocklein (Ringling College of Art and Design) treated “Distortions of Dejanira: visions of female virtue in Handel’s Hercules (1745). And David T. Hewett (University of Virginia) introduced me to the remarkable mythological depth of the band Genesis during the 1970s especially: “Forever to Be Joined as One: Genesis’ ‘The Fountain of Salamacis’ and Ovid.” Other songs by the band in their formative years manifest classical mythological sophistication. Educated schoolboys knew their myths and worked them into their albums and stage shows.

Friday’s session of papers on reception in film had a surprisingly small audience, perhaps because the springtime weather was so fine. Chris Ann Matteo (Fairfax County Public Schools) argued from an anthropological interpretation that Baz Luhrmann’s treatment of Orpheus reenacts the Dionysiac sparagmos (ritual dismemberment of the poet). In “Dissecting Orpheus in Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge!” Dr. Matteo considers the songs of the film’s soundtrack as artistic dismemberments of their originals, wrenched from their original contexts and significantly altered in style or intent.

In another paper Scott A. Barnard (Rutgers University) sought to rehabilitate the reputation of the filmmakers, who have been for a decade now the target of narrow-minded classicists’ pedantry. The author looked for and provided evidence of truly Homeric details in “Authentic Inauthenticity: Homeric resonance in Wolfgang Petersen’s Troy (2004).”

O Brother, Where Art Thou has taken on new meaning for me, because of the paper by Ryan C. Platte (Washington University in St. Louis) called “Scholarly Feedback: homeric studies and American song culture in Coen Brothers Films.” He argues that that film narrates the musical event called the first folkmusic revival. Homer’s historical bearing, at the transition between oral and written culture, makes his Odyssey narrative especially apt for the vehicle for telling it. Likewise, in another Coen Brothers film, matters of folk music are addressed and, again, the Odyssey is the narrative frame. Platte’s paper now has me looking for all manner of electrical innovations that populate the visual landscape of Coen Brothers’ sophisticated film. But his interpretation of the “stringing the bow” episode is for me the most persuasive part of Platte’s paper.
Rocki Wentzel (Augustana College) offered commentary on a less-than-obvious mythological paradigm in one of my favorite mythological films in “Beyond Pygmalion: the writer as Narcissus in Ruby Sparks.”

And in “Politics and Violence in Jorge Alí Triana’s Edipo Alcalde,” by Prof. Annette M. Baertschi (Bryn Mawr College) the remarkable Chilean film was analyzed in a sensitive treatment of the film’s violence. The paper was more about Creon, perhaps, than about Jocasta’s incest. [The Mythmatters reader(s) may recall my blogpost about Edipo Alcalde’s gut-wrenching Jocasta narrative.] For me the most valuable part of Baertschi’s paper, the detail I will anticipate most eagerly prior to publication, is her documenttion of Nobel-laureate screenwriter Garcia Marquéz’ preoccupation with Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex throughout his career and correspondence. The film is absolutely worth further study, and Baertschi’s interpretation will play an important role in classicsists’ understanding it.

Finally, the conference ended on a reception high-note, when George Frederic Franko (Hollins University) offered a paper that seemed to me more about Shakespeare than about Ovid. “Ovid’s Pyramus and Thisbe: lamentable new comedy,” was a highlight of the conference for me, especially because Franko has clear control of the Sahkespearean context as well as the Ovidian text. Because I was presiding as the session where he spoke, I was able to tell Prof. Franko how much I enjoyed his insightful paper. in the blogpost, I can only encourage the reader(s) to go and consult Franko’s abstract, and all the many others, at

—— RTM, 29 March 2015

Friday, March 6, 2015

Hermione's statue in Winter's Tale: is Leontes Pygmalion or not?

Shakespeare's Winter's Tale concludes a stunning scene of transformation in its final act. Queen Hermione was reported to have died in the most abject circumstances some sixteen years earlier (WT 3.2.3). Over the years her memory has been kept alive by a sculpted likeness by her husband's Leontes. In the play's finale a remarkable denouement occurs to the amazement of the on-stage characters (as well as the audience, to be sure). Some critics see the transformation of the statue into a living Hermione (WT 5.3.11) as a a parallel to Pygmalion's creation in the classical myth (Ov. Met. 10.243-98).

Engraving by Robert Thew of Wm Hamilton, R.A.,
"Statue of Hermione".
Jane Davidson Reid's Oxford Guide to Classical Mythology in the Arts lists the statue of Hermione as a usage in the Pygmalion article (p. 956). Corroborative scholarship includes Carroll (1985) 213ff. and Barkan 1986 283-87.

The MythMatters blog's reader(s) know(s) of my reticence to allow Shakespeare's Hamlet to be listed as a usage of the Orestes myth. Nutshelled: Hamlet clearly references Neoptolemus' murder of Priam and imposes the mythic paradigm of that narrative upon the events raging in Elsinore and in Hamlet's tormented mind; overt reference to Orestes' plight is wholly lacking in the bard's masterpiece. When Shakespeare alludes to a classical myth, in my opinion, he knows how to do so, and he tends to let his audience know it.

The Winter's Tale's application of a classical myth is somewhat problematic for my narrow definitions of what is allowable in Shakespearean myth-use criticism. For, I see no overt reference to Pygmalion and his ivory girl (aka Galatea in post-classical parlance). Criticism perhaps ought to pause at the threshold of treating this "parallel" — i.e. Leontes:Pygmalion::Hermione:"Galatea" —and settle merely to observe that the scene merely seems to draw upon the Ovidian forebear. Yet, that positively-spun Pygmalionism infuses Leontes' dedication to his lost wife, who after years of separation comes back to him. Presumably all the work that Pygmalion had put into prayers to Venus and into masterful craftsmanship has been expended by Leontes in the interim since Hermione's unfortunate demise. (The play's text itself states that not Leontes himself but one Giulio Romano had sculpted Hermione's likeness for the widowed king.)

Shakespeare clearly knew Ovid's Metamorphoses. The Pygmalion myth comes into Western literature through no other way than through the text that the bard is known to have read, at least in Claxton's translation if not in Latin, in his school days. Reid offers as "classical sources" for Pygmalion "Ovid, Metamorphoses 10.243-98. Apollodorus Bibliotheca 3.14.3." However, that latter passage includes no tale of an animated sculpture: "οὕτος [Κινύρας] ἐν Κύπρῳ, παραγενόμενος σὺν λαῷ, ἔκιστε Πάφον, γήμας δὲ ἐκεῖ Μεθάρμην, κόρην Πυγμαλίωνος Κυπρίων βασιλέως..." (Cinyras migrated to Cyprus with a people, founded Paphos, and married there Metharme the daughter of Pygmalion the king of the Cypriots). Ovid alone gets the provocative sculptor into our literary tradition.

Was Shakespeare working with the Pygmalion story as he received it in Ovid's Metamorphoses/ The motif of a statue-made-flesh was certainly available to him. But does Leontes become a Pgymalion in the Winters Tale? I'm leaving the jury out a bit longer.

BYU's dramatic production of WT in late March 2015 may give me a chance to watch the play and sharpen my judgement.


MIT's Shakespeare project text:
J. Miller, "Some Versions of Pygmalion: in C. Martindale, ed., Ovid Renewed (Cambridge University Press, 1989).
Leonard Barkan, The Gods Made Flesh: metamorphosis and the pursuit of paganism (New Haven, 1986).
William C. Carroll, The Metamorphosis of Shakespearean Comedy (Princeton, 1985).


Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Jean-Luc Godard's elegy for Penelope: Le Mépris (Contempt)

Le Mépris (Contempt) dir. by Jean-Luc Godard 1963

Godard's Contempt is nearly as old as I am. But, where has this film been all my life? I watched it last night and don't plan very soon to stop thinking about it. It's a game-changer for married adults. And it's an extremely provocative treatment of Penelope (and, oh yes, Odysseus). This highly intriguing film is clearly about film-making. The opening credits make that clear by deconstructing the process of filming a tracking shot, while a disembodied voice reads audibly the details of director, producer, cinematographer, etc. And this dialogue with film-making recurs all throughout the film.

Blonde-bombshell Bridget Bardot plays a tragically
Penelopean figure in Jean-Luc Godard's Contempt.
But Contempt is also about deeply human relationships. In the guise of an Odyssey adaptation, Godard tells the tragically tender failure of a marriage. The skeletal narrative treats an international production of the filming of an adaptation of Homer’s Odyssey.  An insufferably boorish American producer Jerry Prokosch (Jack Palance) has tired of the German director’s  (Fritz Lang, ipse) waning attempts to construct a film a deeply hormonal American simpleton male can understand. Accordingly, the producer has summoned a new French screenwriter Paul (Michel Piccoli) to the ragged backlot of Cinecittà for a consult. The screenwriter’s wife, Camille (Brigitte Bardot) is clearly a Penlope, but here she is drawn away from her failing Odysseus by the questionable attractions of the American in a red Alfa Romeo droptop. Every time the actor-qua-Odysseus appears on the set, Paul's progressive failure as husband becomes increasingly apparent. The film-within-a-film is an artsy Odyssey, but it is structured enough and sufficiently recurrent to provide the subtext and framework upon which the couple’s agonizing failure can be hung and dried.  One critic calls Contempt “Godard’s richest study of human relations, and a film very much about a tortured kind of movie love.”
         Prokosch promotes from the start his thesis that Penelope is unfaithful to Odysseus. Lang and Paul see the fault as Odysseus’ and his specifically criticize his apparent eagerness to stay away for 10 years beyond what he could have achieved. 
         Bardot in 1963 was at the height of her sex-appeal. Godard was pressured by his actual producers to prostitute her famous physique and her attendant attitude made legendary in Et Dieu ... créa la femme (And God Created Woman) (1956) and other films. While Godard's camera features
Bardot never assumes this pose in
the Godard film. The poster-maker
exploits the star's physique in ways
the film-maker overtly avoids.
Bardot's famous backside in several scenes from beginning to end in Contempt, the sexuality of the starlet actually declines precipitously through the narrative. The patriotically red-white-and-blue filtered nude-scene at the film's outset is the rare moment of tenderness between Camille and Paul, the chaste height from which the couple's relationship plummets. Paul falls out of love with his sizzling wife as the film progresses. She vice-versa. So, when late in the film Camille plunges (off-camera) into the spectacular waters off Capri and swims (unclothed and on-camera) away from Paul and out to sea, it is the last time they are seen together in one shot;  they could not have grown farther apart. 
        The American producer — acting a part that has autobiographical significance for Godard's own marital mishaps — has come between Camille and Paul in a way that Homer's Odysseus never really allowed.
            I assign the film to OGCMA-Penelope rather than to the perhaps more obvious choice of "Odysseus-Return of Odysseus". The film is a loving elegy to Penelope. Casting the hottest French cinematic commodity (Bardot) in the female lead indicates Godard's belief in the importance of the role. Piccoli did acquire considerable fame for his part. But the critical performance is Bardot's Camille. She is the one who responds to the failures of her capable husband; she is the one who must consider the advances of Prokosch. While caught between her Odysseus' negligence and the primitive testosteronic advances of her Suitor, Camille is willing to sublimate her inherent Bardotesque sexuality (her hyper-famous blonde mane) beneath a brunette bobbed wig. Paul's failure to see this cry of submissiveness leads to the Camille's open rejection of his later feeble attempts to recover her for his pride's sake. 
    Godard's Contempt belongs among the most provocative Penelope receptions we'll see.


The Criterion Collection has done a tremendous service by overdubbing the film (reissued 2002 as Criterion Collection #171) with a provocative audio commentary by Robert Stam.

A fine essay by Phillip Lopate, “Totally, Tenderly, Tragically” (copyright 1998, available excerpted on the Criterion’s website) is very useful  (click here). — He calls Palance’s Prokosch “vilely virile”.

Joanna Paul, "Homer and Cinema: translation and adaptation in Le Mépris," in A. Lianeri and V. Zajko, edd., Translation and the Classic: identity as change in the history of culture, Classical Presences (OUP 2008), 148 - 65.

Colin MacCabe and Laura Mulvey, edd., Godard’s Contempt: essays from the London Consortium, Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011.

Brief contextualization in the short overview of “The French New Wave (1959 – 1964)” in Bordwell & Thompson’s Film Art: an introduction 475 – 77.

Godard's film is itself an adaptation of the 1954 novel by Alberto Moravia originally entitled Il Disprezzo which was variously translated: A Ghost at Noon, trans. Angus Davidson (London: Secker & Warburg, 1954) and Contempt (New York: New York Review of Books, 1999). 
— characters in the Moravia novel are named Riccardo and Emilia Molteni, Rheingold (=Lang), and Battista (=Prokosch).

Valuable for its contributions by Godard himself:
Histoire(s) du cinéma — DVD St. Charles, Ill.: Olive Films, 2011, 2 videodiscs (266 min.): sd., col.; 4 3/4 in., French DVD 7246 pt.1 Floor 4–S, HBLL Media Center Desk —Description
"An extraordinary look at motion pictures as seen through the eyes of the reknowned filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard, who transformed the face of cinema with his prolific, influential, and revolutionary body of work, which includes such classics as Breathless, Weekend, and Contempt. Consisting of eight episodes made over a period of ten years, the series covers a wide range of topics, from the birth of cinema to Italian neo-realism to Hollywood and beyond."

Monday, December 29, 2014

Simon Stone's Medea, toneelgroepamsterdam (review)

Medea and Jason have changed their names to Anna and Lucas.  Simon Stone’s stimulating adaptation of Euripides’ familiar classic is titled Medea and it clearly follows the plot line so closely that nobody can be surprised by the outcome. Anna is a pharmaceuticals researcher. Lucas is attracted to the much younger daughter of his own boss — Clara's name is a fine translation of Euripides' Glauke, and Christopher here is the new name for her father, Creon.

Marieke Heebink plays the lead in
Simon Stone's
Medea at Amsterdam's
Stadsschouwburg thru March 7.
A fortunate airline misfortune stranded me in Amsterdam for a choice opportunity to see this new adaptation of Euripides’ Medea. Open seating allowed me to arrive a few minutes before curtain and still get the best single seat in the house, precise center of row 5. The box office clerk asked whether I would be OK with a play in Dutch. Since I have read Euripides’ play few times, I felt confident that I would be able to follow it. And I am glad I took the chance. The Stadsschouwburg will feature the Toneelgroepamsterdam through the middle of March in this extraordinarily provocative production.

The boys have personalities. They are personalized with names, even. Stagecrafting in this production puts the boys on the empty stage for at least 10 minutes before the play starts. One plays on his laptop, as the other clad in a hoodie leans idly against a wall. This dramaturgical gesture shifts the focus of the tragedy more from Medea’s solitary plight to her murder of the children themselves. During the play, the boys’ pranks involve catching Mom and Dad in bed, offstage but with video camera rolling. Mom’s far more amused than Dad to be caught in flagrante with his estranged wife. And the prank becomes a critical plot element far beyond what Euripides conceived. The kids interact with their future stepmother both before and during the delivery of Medea’s auspicious gift. Anna/Medea has been slipping into an alcoholic emotional abyss since it was clear she would not regain her husband's heart. Here, too, Stone’s script probes new depths that Euripides overlooked.

Stone has plied rather deftly his adaptor’s tool in this new play. Rather than opening with the original’s ominous fears of the Nurse — “Would that the Argo had never penetrated the Symplegades…” The play opens with Anna and Lucas in dialogue softly and face-to-face, but separated by at least 20 feet. Later, the nurse's role will be filled by a social worker who comes in on assignment to supervise Anna’s increasingly frightening activities. Anna is a 40-something mother whose self-confidence is clearly shattered by her husband’s pursuit of a girl with long legs and a powerful father. Euripides' Jason had harbored similar motives, of course, but the circumstances are naturally modernized.

The only mythological allusion I caught was an overt reference to Ovid's Philomela and Itys, with citation overtly pointed out within the text of the Metamorphoses. Anachronism such as this cannot stall pedants who want to enjoy this 21st-century adaptation, for it can't matter that Euripides' 5th-century masterpiece is explained by way of a Roman narrative. Can it?

Some technological razzmattaz draws the audience into the most intimate proximity to the actors on stage. A large screen above the stage displays projected images from a wide variety of angles throughout. When the estranged couple explicates their rift in the opening scene, an offstage camera zooms in on Medea’s face then Jason’s, and the audience can simultaneously see their distance and fading lustre of Medea’s hair, the crows feet in her saddened eyes. A stunning shot late in the play gazes down directly down, 90-degrees from the rafters high above the stage in one of the most etherial views. Is the director showing us the vantage point of Medea’s divine grandfather, the only savior for this horrific mother?

Simon Stone’s play is not especially preachy. And in its most chilling moments Medea’s unthinkable crime becomes somehow plausible. The program notes chronicle briefly the horrific parricide of the Kansas physician Debora Green who in 1995 began poisoning her estranged husband, Michael Farrar, and then burned down the family home killing two of their three children. The sensationalism of Green’s murder is the subject of Ann Rule’s book Bitter Harvest: a woman’s fury, a mother’s sacrifice (2014). Mrs. Green is serving two consecutive 40-year death sentences incarcerated in federal penitentiary. While Ann Rule’s reviewers compare Green to Medea more readily than the author herself seems to, clearly Simon Stone has knitted a mythological layer over the top of Rule’s recent NYT Bestseller.

Stone produces the plot with a good deal of verve. The play’s second half is physically dominated by ash. The first phases bring a contstant falling column of black ash that falls into a heap in the middle of the stage, thematically visualizing the ruins of Medea’s ruined marriage. Then, when the rift is final and there is no going back, the column stops but the ash heap comes into play. It is tampled. It is scattered. The actors frollick through it and grieve in it and grovel in the most telling ways. A stark-white set that is otherwise utterly void of props becomes a gutwrenching backdrop to the blackened ash of a once smoldering love affair.

 — OGCMA0643ANCIENTMedea_EuripidesStone 
—— RTM
For the toneelgroepamsterdam website: (click)

For Simon Stone: