Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Reuben Nakian's Juno, Part II

On the day I encountered the Juno by Reuben Nakian at my campus art museum, I wrote to the Nakian Atelier seeking further information that might help me understand the sculpture and its history.
Reuben Nakian, "Juno", outside the BYU Museum of Art;
photograph courtesy of Museum Director, Mark Magleby.

I received some days later an email from the artist's son, Paul S. Nakian, an attorney in Connecticut. The letter informs that Dr. Robert Metzger wrote the text of a catalogue of Reuben Nakian's works  and that, even if the Juno is not easily explicated, it is known. According to Metzger and P. Nakian, who reports the scholar's ideas, "Juno" was dedicated first at Norwalk, CT in the early 1980's and belongs to the artist's "Stonehenge Period".

I will have to dig into Metzger's book, which I now have ordered via Interlibrary Loan.
    Corcoran Gallery of Art and Reading Public Museum and Art Gallery, Reuben Nakian: a centennial retrospective, 1897 - 1986 (Feb. 6 - April 4, 1999) (Reading, PA, 1998).

I will prefer looking at this book before I phone Robert Metzger, whose number was provided for me.

Surely there is some scholarly writing on the sculpture. But I haven't found it yet.

——— RTM


  

Monday, January 18, 2016

Abduction of Oreithyia by Boreas in Hitchcock's Vertigo

A large tapestry with a classical mythological theme plays an incidental role in Hitchcock's Vertigo (1958). There seems to me no likely interpretive connection between the film's Orphic theme and the tapestry's narrative. The tapestry depicts the abduction of Oreithyia by Boreas (Ov. Met. 6.683ff.) Just in case the allusion becomes apparently purposeful, I jot this quick note.

The setting is San Francisco's Palace of the Legion Honor, where Madeline Elster frequents the "Portrait of Carlotta Valdes". Directly opposite the Carlotta portrait the large colorful tapestry fills the wall. Scottie Ferguson lurks in the gallery tracking Madeline on his first day. Having ascertained that Madeline is mirroring Carlotta in posture and dress (minute 27), Scottie exits the gallery in search of a docent who can identify the portrait's subject. Hitchcock's visual shot has Scottie walk across the tapestry toward the camera. 
R-A Houasse (tapestry by P. Behagle Atelier; 1720) "Abduction of
Oriethyia by Boreas", Palace of the Legion of Honor, San Francisco

Rene-Antoine Houasse designed the silk and wool tapestry for execution in the French workshop of Phillipe Behagle ca. 1720. Designed as part of a series of tapestries with scenes from Ovid's Metamorphoses, the piece represents conventional techniques and stylistic trends of early 18th Century neoclassicism. About 10 years before Hitchcock's film, the Legion of Honor (Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco) acquired the tapesty as a gift of Mrs. Bruce Kelham and Mrs. Peter Lewis. (art.famsf.org)

Vertigo(dir. A. Hitchcock, 1958); Scottie Ferguson exits the gallery in
the Palace of the Legion of Honor in front of the Houasse tapestry.
credit: 1000 Frames of Vertigo — frame 249 (click)
In the center of the tapestry (122 x 208 inches, overall) the winged Boreas, divinity of the North Wind, abducts the girl Oreithyia while the remaining seven earthbound daughters of the Athenian founding king Erechtheus, her sisters, manifest various expressions of distress. The story as told in Metamorphoses, an abduction that leads to the begetting of the Argonauts Zetes and Calais, can hardly now be counted among the most familiar of the narratives within that poem. It is slipped into the sequence of Athenian monarchy, right after the horrors of Procne and Philomela and right before Jason and Medea. Yet it contains many themes recurrent throughout the poem — abduction, divine coupling to produce prodigious offspring, and male imposition of power upon hapless girls.

Madeline's problematic identity notwithstanding, the mythological reference seems coincidental. Gavin Elster has hatched a plot together with a young woman whose name ultimately seems to be Judy Barton, "just a girl from Salina, Kansas" (1:35). The circumstances of Gavin's association with Judy/Madeline might be reflected in Boreas' abduction of Oreithyia. But the narrative never provides such information.

It would seem more logical to conclude that the tapestry is coincidentally hanging in the gallery where Hitchcock arranged for the Portait of Carlotta to be shown. That painting was commissioned and painted by John Ferren specially for the film. But the tapestry was displayed for several years as an actual part of the permanent collection. (It is no longer on display in January 2016.)

— RTM
OGCMA0277NOTBoreas_Houasse
______________
    For the Metropolitan Museum of Art's related holding, see Tapestry in the Baroque: threads of splendor (fig. 189, p. 415).
     Most information pertaining to this tapestry is taken from the FAMSF's website (consulted 18 Jan 2016): https://art.famsf.org/rene-antoine-houasse/abduction-orithyia-boreas-metamorphoses-ovid-series-19484

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Reuben Nakian's Juno ... OGCMA0515NOTHera_Nakian


Modern usages of classical mythology really interest me. Artists express various ideas by way of classical mythological allusions all the time. But, frankly, living in the western United States, I tend to bump into classical mythological usages a little less often than I do when I go visiting elsewhere. Still, sometimes, they're right under my nose!

On the north side of BYU’s Museum of Art a big abstract sculpture confronts nearly every visitor. Since I enter on the south side normally — coming from campus rather than from the parking lot — I experience that confrontation less often. Last week’s entrance changed that. Visiting the Norman Rockwell exhibition with my mother and her friend, I was asked “What is that sculpture?” I didn’t know.
A large abstract bronze sits atop a rectangular pedestal bloc. It abstraction — if I ever took time in the past to think about the sculpture — had made me liken the sculpture’s profile to the ridgeline of nearby Provo Peak and Cascade Mountain, and not so much to the outline of Mt. Timpanogos. Fortunately, in that moment of maternal interrogation I avoided professorial guff. I didn’t pretend to know what the sculpture was “doing”. It turns out, it has nothing to do with the mountain backdrop. The facts are on the bloc’s east face: “Reuben Nakian, American 1897 – 1986,  Juno, bronze”.

So. Um. It turns out the only thing I actually had right about the sculpture was its material — bronze.
Its creator is an American… I would have guessed European; maybe Scandinavian. Wrong. I’d never heard of Reuben Nakian. But the biggest baffler to me is that, even though I have professed to be interested in classical mythological usages, this looming bronze has been sitting in front of my museum of art for over 20 years and its one-word title gives it away as a usage of the myth of Juno, the Roman sky-goddess!

“I’ve got some work to do!” I confessed to my Mom.
That night I looked through the BYU-MOA on-line materials to find something scholarly about Nakian’s Juno, my new nemesis. I found very little, but in about 10 minutes of browsing, I was able to piece together some elements of apparent truth. So, I am resolved to learn more about this sculpture and work on it.
   What did Reuben Nakian have in mind when he named this mass of bronze after the Roman sky-goddess? Did he mean anything by it? Why call it anything at all? Is it a happenstance that this sculpture got so named? Did its acquisition at the BYU MOA happen because it’s called Juno?

Here’s what I presently know, listed not necessarily in the sequence I discovered the details:
The Oxford Guide to Classical Mythology in the Arts, 1300 – 1990s does NOT list Nakian’s Juno, though it could have, since the sculpture was created over a decade before the OGCMA was published (1994).
      If it were listed in OGCMA, it would have been in the article on “Hera” on page 515.
                        OGCMA0515NOTHera_Nakian
       And its entry would look like this:
Reuben Nakian, “Juno,” abstract sculpture, 1980, Brigham Young University Museum of Art.

Nakian created many sculptures with titles drawn from classical mythology. Other titles include “Hecuba”, “Juno: from the Judgement of Paris”, “Minerva, from the Judgement of Paris”, “Leda and the Swan”, “Nymph and Seven Dolphins” and others.

“No other sculptor of the twentieth century has matched Nakian’s heroic grapplings with the grand themes of Western art, returning classical mythology to the foreground of human consciousness.” Robert Metzger, cited by Atelier Nakian http://www.nakian.org

When the “Juno” was placed at the north entrance to the Museum of Art in 1993, an article in the Deseret News included some information that might be considered authoritative. According to the article, “It represents an artistic style based in abstract expressionism, yet with a classical structure that was not embraced by abstract expressionists - according to Neil Hadlock.”
A summary accompanies it:
A sculpture by famed artist Reuben Nakian now graces the entrance to Brigham Young University's new Museum of Art. The work, an 8x8x8-foot, 4,900-pound bronze was lifted by crane July 29 onto a pedestal on the east side of the red granite museum.
Called ``Juno,'' the work was a National Endowment for the Arts commission Nakian received in 1981. It represents an artistic style based in abstract expressionism, yet with a classical structure that was not embraced by abstract expressionists - according to Neil Hadlock. Hadlock, a sculptor and member of the BYU art faculty, selected the work and oversaw the coloring of the piece at the Tallix Foundry in New York.”

The Nakian.org website has a plentiful bibliography page, with articles listed by decade. The Deseret News article is not listed.


The Nakian Atelier website lists approximately 100 scholarly works on the artist, Reuben Nakian, and his artistic production. My next step is to dig into the interesting items and see whether I can learn something about this work of art. Stay tuned to Mythmatters, if you care to see this story unfold.
Macfarlane's female relations and a friend pose on 30 Dec 2015 beside
Reuben Nakian's
Juno outside the BYU MOA.

—— RTM

Friday, December 4, 2015

JKBrickwork’s Kinetic Sculpture of Sisyphus



OGCMA1009NOTSisyphus_JKBrickworks

Everybody knows something about Sisyphus, it seems, especially that he spends eternity pushing a boulder to the top of a hill in the World of the Dead. Odysseus saw him there and told how every time Sisyphus nearly muscled the boulder to the summit, it would bound back down and settle in the plain. Odysseus did not, however, explain WHY Sisyphus is consigned to this eternal labor.
     Explanations about reasons for the Sisyphean punishment vary among mythographers in classical texts, both Greek and Latin. He cheated Death (Thanatos), some say, in arranging with his wife to leave his mortal remains unburied so that as a disembodied shade he could persuade the nether gods to allow his return to living; upon his return to our realm, Sisyphus ventured to abide among the living. Zeus, in another telling, frowned upon Sisyphus’ irreverence — for Sisyphus had told Asopus that the Olympian had abducted his daughter — and sent Thanatos to deal with the transgressor. Sisyphus bound Thanatos in chains, thus temporarily interrupting the need for mortals to die, until Ares intervened, freed Death, and sent Sisyphus to the eternal toil of pushing that stone ever upwards.
JKBrickworks, Jason's Kinetic Sisyphus:
see http://jkbrickworks.com/sisyphus-kinetic-sculpture/
     Since ancient authors touched upon Sisyphus’ labor — and it would surprise us if they were consistent entirely in the whys and wherefores — literary and other artists in all ages have written about the legendary trickster. My personal favorite is Ally Condie’s remarkable telling in her Matched trilogy of teen-directed novels (Dutton 2010-2012), where Sisyphus is shown to have undertaken his eternal push for purpose of wearing down a canyon through a ridgeline and thereby channeling a stream for subsequent ages to follow. Albert Camus’ 1942 articulation of the absurdity of Sisyphus’ task is itself a classic: “Sisyphus, proletarian of the gods, powerless and rebellious, know the whole extent of his wretched condition: it is what he thinks of during his descent.” And collecting occasional New Yorker cartoons playing with the Sisyphus myth, especially those by Chas Addams and Christopher Weyant, was for many years a welcome diversion for me.
    Now, a Lego engineer at JKBrickworks.com named Jason has crafted a remarkable kinetic sculpture of Sisyphus pushing a boulder. Jason’s YouTube was picked up by Disney Research and forwarded to me by Abi Pettijohn, an attentive student in my Myth class. In ClCv 241, I hope to train students to look for interesting modern usages of classical myths. My hope is that the really interesting ones will spark further thinking. Abi has done her job very well indeed.
     The JKBrickworks Sisyphus can be seen in action on YouTube (use this link: https://youtu.be/pKrHTYqm8pw). Aside from the marvelous engineering on display, I draw attention to the mythological artwork explained by the engineer himself in the video. Jason introduces himself and his creation, but makes sure we understand the freize panels adorning the base upon which his Sisyphus moves. (Jason is a long way, in every measure, beyond any of the Lego fabrications I built when I worked in Danish brick!) Jason explains on the video:
So, before I explain how all the mechanics work, I thought I would show you the base of the model where I have depicted my interpretation of some of the scenes of Sisyphus’ life in this Greek relief style. On the front we have him in his chariot and horse attacking some of the visitors to his kingdom. [On the back panel:] This is actually Hades in the Underworld being chained up. He was actually intending to chain Sisyphus up, but Sisyphus managed to turn the tables on him. [On the opposite long flank:] Here he is hosting a dinner party and he was stabbing some of his guests. He really was a pretty evil dude. [On the short front flank:] This is Zeus who finally had enough of shenanigans and punished him by having him roll the boulder up the mountain. And of course Zeus cursed the boulder so that it would always roll back to the bottom when it got to the top.
      Jason is not pretending to offer up a scholarly discourse on Sisyphus. So, I gladly allow him his narrative. Moreover, the brickwork involved in his four remarkably skilful friezes (not to mention the stunning figure of his Sisyphus itself) gives this mythographer a bit of a free pass. However, the four narratives Jason offers are novel and unfounded in classical accounts.
       Jason’s Sisyphus is regarded as “a pretty evil dude” and is thus depicted killing guests at a “dinner party”. Gross violations of xenia are not part of customary, classical (if you will) narratives of Sisyphean criminality. The binding of Hades is similar to the Sisyphus’ binding of Thanatos, to be sure; and maybe a critic of Jason’s mythopoesis is going to far to make him split a hair distinguishing between Death and Hades, the god of the dead. I know of no classical myth that tells of Sisyphus trampling by chariot visitors to his kingdom. Corinth, Sisyphus’ kingdom, was known for many things in antiquity, but not primarily renown for its inhospitality. Nor was Sisyphus known among classical authors for dangerous treatment of visitors in general. Jason’s fourth claim, that “Zeus finally [tired] of Sisyphus’ shenanigans” is pretty much right on the money, even if classical authors give the cursing of the infamous boulder over to other gods at times.
      I write in response to Jason’s Kinetic Sisyphus not out of pedantry, not to mark the contents and explanations of his friezes as erroneous, but rather to welcome this remarkable contribution to the world of modern usages of classical mythology, that corpus of timeless narratives that continues to change and grow.
   RTM, with thanks to by Abigail Pettijohn

Some bibliography offered by Classical Tradition, comp. by A. Grafton and G.W. Most (Harvard, 2010), s.v. “Sisyphus” [G.B.]
B. Seidensticker and A. Wessels, eds., Mythos Sisyphos: Texte von Homer bis Günter Kunert (Leipzig 2001).
Also, see Oxford Guide to Classical Mythology in the Arts, 1300 – 1990s  (Oxford University Press, 1994).

Monday, November 2, 2015

George O'Connor's Olympians: Poseidon and the horse

G. O'Connor, Olympians: Poseidon, earth shaker
Neal Porter Books: New York, 2013
George O'Connor's graphic-novel treatments of Greek mythology caught my eye this weekend. I wish I had come to know them earlier! O'Connor attempts to work rather sophisticated questions about standard mythologies into a series he aims at a 9-to-14 year old audience. Though pitched at kids, grown-ups can probably enjoy The Olympians as well. This quick assessment of the series' fifth book Poseidon: earth shaker is supposed to convince the reader to look into the series as a whole.

A website created by the publisher promotes sales of the books. See www.olympiansrule.com


Horses are sacred to Poseidon. This puzzles O'Connor, and rightly so. The ancient Greeks prayed to Poseidon as "Pelagios, Asphaleios, and Hippios" (i.e. god of the sea, god of protection from earth-quake, and god of horses), according to Pausanias (Description of Greece 7.21.7). Poseidon's affiliation with horses in myth and in cult is ubiquitous. Poseidon is regarded as the direct progenitor of the horse in cults at Thessaly and Athens, where his semen spilt upon the rock engendered the first horse. The winged horse Pegasus is the direct offspring of Poseidon's mating with Medusa, born at the gorgon's decapitation. Pegasus lighted upon the earth with a prodigious hoofbeat and opened a fresh-water spring, Hippocrene, from which the Muses draw inspiration and fresh water. Appeasement of the gods at the end of the Trojan siege was effected by means of a horse. The human-voiced horse Arion is the offspring of Poseidon, sometimes in union with an earthborn Erinys and sometimes with the earth-goddess Demeter Erinys. It is Poseidon's essential characteristic as the god of the earth, the Earth Shaker, that associates him most naturally with chthonic entities such as the
earth-born horse.  (For more on this, see W. Burkert, Greek Religion (Harvard, 1985), 138 - 39.)
O'Connor, Poseidon p. 9, frm. 2

O'Connor's coverage of a broad set of Poseidon myths is impressive. Polyphemus and Odysseus, the
drawing of the Lots after the Titanomachy, Athena's contest for primacy in Athens, Arion's birth from Demeter, the Trojan Horse, how Theseus was both the son of Aegeas and of Poseidon, and so forth.

The audience of 9-to-14 year olds will not be too scandalized by naughtiness. No sexual nudity is explicitly drawn, though Poseidon throughout wears nothing more than a flowing loincloth. Ariadne is shown wearing one of those crazy topless
Poseidon's salt-water spring on
Acropolis, Poseidon p. 49 frm. 2
dresses that you might remember the "Minoan Snake Goddess" of Heracleion wearing in art history books; but O'Connor places captions and speaking-bubbles strategically throughout. If you are looking for such things, you'll notice them. Kids won't. Likewise, only very close scrutiny of some frames that depict naked youths running in a footrace reveals the depicted runners to be naked, and only then if you know what to look for.  The narrative of Aethra's unions with Theseus' two fathers is drawn (in the Poseidon part) as captionless silhouettes in a moonlight swim, unlikely to spark too many questions from youngsters. Still, O'Connor remains culturally correct in these moments.

Poseidon offers plenty of material for young geeks. I imagine my nephew poring over the genealogical tree inside the front cover. You can view it on the OLYMPIANSRULE site, also. The author's propensity to includes lots of myths in a linear narrative is appealing; plus it keeps them short. The amusing "Greek Notes" (note the strike-thru!) at the back of the book explain sometimes nuanced graphics within the narratives. I won't be surprised when so tired of seeing theoi.com there!] It will be a welcome day when my students in the Myth class know their stuff from O'Connor and not from Rick Riordan's adaptations.
O'Connor, Poseidon p. 14 frm. 1
O'Connor starts showing up in footnotes of my college students' papers. [If only!... I'm

O'Connor's questions about the connection between Poseidon and the horse arise several times within his Poseidon book. He is clearly amused, but also intrigued. Several references to horses, visual and stated, recur in Poseidon. A discussion question (p. 74) asks "Why do you think the God of the Sea was also the God of Earthquakes? How about horses?" Several of the "Greek Notes" mention horses, e.g. "Page 9, Panel 2 [see panel at right, above]: Stallions. Poseidon really likes horses. More on this later."

According to O'Connor's "Bibliography" (p. 76), "without doubt, the single most valuable resource" for classical mythology is theoi.com. I heartily wish this clever purveyor of classical mythology were inclined to pursue more authoritative source materials than what is available on the internet. The author himself notes that theoi.com is limited, in that "it's not quite complete, and it doesn't seem to be updated anymore." Still, it is delightful to see what results from O'Connor's  encounters. He does The Orphic Hymns (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2013)! ISBN 9781421408828] I'd like to see future volumes derive authority from authoritative source materials such as Oxford Guide to Classical Mythology in the Arts.
George O'Connor from olympiansrule.com
admit that he has struggled to find the Orphic Hymn to Poseidon, even though it "was very hard to find in an actual book". [Next time use A.N. Athanassakis and B.M. Molkow, transs.

O'Connor's recommendations for further reading range very very broadly, from good recommendations "for younger readers" like D'Aulaires' Books of Greek Myths to (under Odysseus' blurb on the facing page) a recommendation for Joyce's Ulysses as "widely consider to be one of the greatest books in the English language." OK. That's a broad range!

If I were recommending Greek mythological books for young readers — and in fact I was asked just this weekend by a family member — I would be really comfortable watching George O'Connor's Olympians continue to fly off the shelves. I ordered the set for myself this morning!

—  RTM


By the way... Horses and plate-techtonics came up on Saturday's Weekend Morning Edition: click here.

George O'Connor's Olympian pantheon, from olympiansrule.com

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Icarus Flies Again — Baltimore Symphony Orchestra


My favorite D.C. attorney, Christopher Meldrum, is a student of classical mythological reception. It’s great to see what one can do after graduating with honors in Classics from BYU! He shares the following observations on an interesting usage of the Icarus myth. Thanks, Chris!




http://c300221.r21.cf1.rackcdn.com/the-fall-of-icarus-by-hendrick-goltzius-1382200414_b.png
Goltzius' Icarus is one of his
etchings of the Four Disgracers (Icarus,
Phaethon, Ixion, and Tantalus), 1588.
A performance by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra is a symphonic work entitled “Icarus At The Edge of Time” [OGCMA0593NOTIcarus_GreeneGlass]  (http://www.bsomusic.org/calendar/events/2015-2016-events/midweek-concert-icarus-at-the-edge-of-time/). The piece was originally commissioned and produced by World Science Festival (New York) with the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and Southbank Centre (London) with the Royal Society. The Festival has the following blurb on the piece "What if Icarus traveled not to the sun but to a black hole? This 40-minute full orchestral work is a mesmerizing adaptation of Icarus at the Edge of Time, Brian Greene’s book for children. A re-imagining of the Greek myth, which brings Einstein’s concepts of relativity to visceral, emotional life, it features an original score by Philip Glass, script adapted by Greene and David Henry Hwang, and film created and directed by AL + AL."



The performance intermeshes music by Philip Glass, narration by astrophysicist Mario Livio, and a film into a STEAM-activated concert. STEAM activation equates to highly participatory opportunities for audiences of all ages, creative brainchildren of Annemarie Guzy of the BSO (cf. blog, Americans for the Arts.)



As the BSO blurb states
cover of B. Greene's
Icarus at the Edge of Time
, the multimedia piece itself is an adaptation of Icarus at the Edge of Time, a children’s book by Cambridge physicist Brian Greene (a proponent of Sting Theory who you might remember from the NOVA special An Elegant Universe).  Wikipedia says that it is "a science fiction retelling of Icarus' tale. It is about a young man who runs away from his traveling, deep-space home to explore a black hole." You can read additional information about the book, as well as an interview with Green about the book, on Amazon.com (http://www.amazon.com/Icarus-Edge-Time-Brian-Greene/dp/0307268888/ref=sr_1_sc_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1443652434&sr=8-1-spell&keywords=Icarus+at+the+Edge+of+Tome).





In the Q& A, two of the following are of particular relevance to the myth



"Q: Where did the idea to re-imagine the Icarus legend (set in outer space and involving black holes!) come from?



A: I recently told my two and a half year old son a bedtime story that involved space travelers moving near the speed of light. Within days he was telling his own animated stories of dinosaurs and monsters outrunning a new and wonderful concept--"the speed of dark." Which got me thinking. Storytelling is our most basic and powerful means of communication. We listen with a different kind of intensity--and open ourselves most fully--to a gripping tale. So why not allow some of science’s greatest wonders to be experienced not through pedagogy but through the force of narrative? Science in fiction, as opposed to science fiction. Scientific insights that are absorbed rather than studied. Icarus At The Edge Of Time is my first attempt to explore this terrain. Instead of a journey near the sun--a "light" star--Icarus heads to a black hole--a "dark" star. And then the wonders of Einstein's relativity kick in, warping the more familiar ending into a painful conclusion, to be sure, but perhaps one that's more hopeful than the original.



Q: The story of Icarus is a cautionary tale, what do you think it has to say when applied (as it is here) to the nature of scientific exploration of the universe?



A: Great scientists are great adventurers, boldly exploring unknown terrain--"anxiously searching" as Einstein once put it "for a truth one feels but cannot find, until final emergence into the light." Icarus's fearlessness fits this profile to a "T". But there's another side to scientific exploration. Scientific research has the capacity to reveal realms that turn the status quo on its head. And when this happens, we're often not prepared--as a society we're often not sufficiently mature--to take on the responsibility that such new realms can require.



From nuclear knowledge to stem cells, from global climate change to cloning, science not only opens up new vistas but confronts us with profound challenges. In this new version of the Icarus tale, Icarus's unrestrained explorations take him, literally, to a startling new realm--one in which the universe as he knew it becomes forever beyond his reach. We can imagine him maturing into his new life and experience, but we also feel the wrenching pain of his being torn from his familiar reality--and from his family--and entering a completely new world--the very process of maturation we collectively navigate as science rewrites the rules of what's possible."





— submitted by Christopher Meldrum



OGCMA0593NOTIcarusDaedalus_GreeneGlass
OGCMA0593NOTIcarusDaedalus_Gree

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 Amazon.com 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.
(OGCMA0771NOTOrestes_Jancso)

—— RTM

______________
The oners:
1-11:15
11:15 - 20:25
22:45 - 32:00
32:00-40:50
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