Monday, September 29, 2014

Why I will probably find time for the premier of ABC’s Selfie on 30 September


That posttitle wasn't supposed to sound so snotty, when I first wrote it. The conflict for me is not ivory-tower vs. ABC sitcom; rather, it's personal: a 50-something male vs. a rom-com featuring a heavily lipsticked 20-something actress. My resistance here is akin to my first reluctance to like Ally Condie's Matched series. I may get over this one, too. Forgive me, please, and read on.
 
Pygmalion enters world literature by way of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Ovid’s song of Orpheus brilliantly understates the depravity of socially dysfunctional sculptor who creates a lifelike form and successfully importunes Venus to animate it. Ovid’s tale offers an infintely charming assertion that art can outdo nature. But, as an account of human interrelationships, the Pygmalion story in Ovid is rather disturbing. Reread Ovid’s account (Met. 10.243-97) and judge for yourself. Note that Ovid’s “ivory girl” never gets a name and never even closely manifests a personality of her own. The physical metamorphosis complete, Pygmalion’s objectivized wish-fulfillment becomes a reality by bearing his child Paphos. Pygmalion’s girl enters the world stage a really beautiful nobody.

By the 20th Century, a rich tradition had arisen around Pygmalion and his girl. Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw adapts the mythological narrative remarkably. Eliza Doolittle surprises the Pygmalion figure, Higgins, by developing character through their interaction. Pygmalion's ivory girl first acquired a name, Galatea, when Rousseau (1770) “remythologized”[1] the Pygmalion story and made the girl more than just a really pretty face; and a string of comedies and tragedies and comic operas and works of many artistic genres populated the European cultural landscape with the received myth.[2]  

The rezeptionsgeschichte of the Pygmalion myth has become wonderfully rich since Lerner and Lowe’s masterful muscial adaptation of the Bernard Shaw play as My Fair Lady. Dozens of apparent “Pygmalions” have filled the popular cultural landscape, appearing in films from Weird Science (1985) to Mannequin (1987) to Ruby Sparks (dir. J. Dayton, 2012). V. Stoichita reads the Pygmalion myth convincingly into Hitchcock's Vertigo (1957). The Pygmalion narrative material represents such fertile soil that any rom-com writer worth any salt seemingly cultivates a potentially intriguing screenplay in it. And good writers — I like Zoe Kazan’s Ruby Sparks especially here — have grown some very interesting adaptations, indeed.
  
ABC's Selfie stars Karen Gillan and John Cho, premiering 30 September 2014.
Selfie is a new ABC romantic comedy that premiers 30 September. Emily Kapnek’s screenplay pairs characters Eliza Dooley and Henry Higginbotam in an openly acknowledged derivative of My Fair Lady. The pilot aired on internet release in August. Reviews have ranged from not-entirely-favorable to culturally-worth-watching. I missed the pilot, although my mythologically aware daughter and research assistant both told me to heed it for Mythmatters. Nevertheless, on the even of its premier, I now have poured over the available clips at abc.com. From these I can surmise that Scottish it-girl Karen Gillan plays Eliza and John Cho plays an updated Henry with some unexpected (positive) consequences. There seems to be interesting romantic chemistry between these two, and the transformation from Bernard Shaw’s London to the social-mediaverse of Manhattan provokes thought.


What intrigues me most about Selfie are two considerations. First, readers of Mythmatters might anticipate: Does this television program indicate anywhere within its narrative fabric that it is in the Pygmalion (per se) tradition? That is to ask, in other words, whether there is any moment within the program that manifests Emily Kapnek’s awareness that her basic storyline derives ultimately from Pygmalion and/or Ovid. I’ll be watching for this reason. The acknowledgment of mythological ancestry still fascinates me. But secondly — and honestly more interesting — viewers might seriously consider the narrative possibilities of a Pygmalion turned utterly on its head. For, in what I can tell from watching the previews, Kapnek’s Eliza far outstrips her narrative forebears by recognizing early on her own vapidity. Dissed by the society that has welcomed her, this Eliza understands that she must change, and she seeks out a craftsman who she thinks can help. This may be the first moment in the Galatea rezeptionsgeschichte where the creative impulse begins with the ivory girl and inserts the Pygmalion because she wants him there.

— RTM  

From some reviews:

"Selfie is a very loose interpretation of the classic musical My Fair Lady, with “Eliza Dooley” an obvious reincarnation of Audrey Hepburn’s Eliza Doolittle. In My Fair Lady, the snobbish professor Henry Higgins (Rex Harrison) aims to take an unrefined flower girl (Hepburn), and make her presentable to London high society. Along the way, they both learn a lot about how the other half lives, and a stubborn attraction begins to grow between them.
"Instead of a snobbish professor, Selfie presents Henry as a marketing genius, who considers himself above Eliza and her social media obsession. He takes Eliza on as a project, hoping to turn her into a better human being. Because of the negative connotations of Eliza’s hobbies, she is the one who comes off as snobbish and self-involved to the audience, while Henry (despite the fact that he clearly feels superior to her) is the more sympathetic of the two.
"It is an interesting modernization of such a classic story, and the partial role-reversal opens up for a lot of new possibilities. We’re sure that Henry will manage to refine Eliza’s behaviour towards her fellow human beings, but he’ll probably also find that underneath her layers of makeup and/or Instagram filters, she’s got a lot to teach him, too."
OK: So it’s a My Fair Lady Remake. Is it a Pygmalion?


Verne Gay, “’Selfie’ review: What’s not to ‘like’? Plenty” Newsday 27 September 2014
‘"Selfie" is based on George Bernard Shaw's classic 1912 play, "Pygmalion," which has inspired other classics -- notably "My Fair Lady." Now, at this point, all obligatory references to classic plays and motion pictures must come to a screeching halt: "Selfie" is dopey."
Steve Haruch, “In ‘Selfie’, John Cho gets an unlikely shot as a romantic lead,” NPR CodeSwitch, 28 Sept 2014
 “The pilot, which premiers Sept. 30, is much better than its not-very-good name, sort of like the ‘90s Welsh band Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci.”


(later) …“That said, there's no getting around the fact that this is an update of an iconic character we've always thought of as British, and it's difficult to avoid the question: Can 'Enry 'Iggins be an Asian dude? (The answer in this case is yes, absolutely.) Sure, in a perfect world, there have been so many Asian-American male romantic leads that this casting choice is hardly worth noting as unusual or counter-intuitive, but as Cho himself acknowledges we don't live in that world. There's a reason we still have to call it "colorblind casting" instead of just "casting. Interestingly, the traits that make the classic Henry character tick overlap with commonly held views of Asian-Americans: nerdy, uptight, workaholic."


“Because he's a performer in someone else's script, Cho will probably face less scrutiny for molding Henry in his own image, even as Henry tries to mold Eliza in his. Because he's better known for who he is than what he is — a credit to the range and malleability of his craft — he brings less baggage to the role than another Asian-American actor might. … There's still some history to contend with, though, and if Selfie can find an audience, this revolution might be televised after all.”
Max Nicholson, “Selfie: pilot review” 19 August 2014 http://www.ign.com/articles/2014/08/19/selfie-pilot-review
“Loosely based on My Fair Lady (which itself was adapted from George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion), ABC's latest comedy series Selfie follows the life of Eliza Dooley (a modern-day version of Eliza Doolittle), a woman who's obsessed with all things social media.”


[1] See Grafton’s Classical Tradition, s.v. “Galatea” [M.Baumbach] and OGCMA s.v. “Pygmalion”.
[2] Reference works on the reception of the Pygmalion myth include A. Dinter, Der Pygmalion-Stoff in der europäischen Literatur: Rezeptionsgeschichte einer Ovid-Fabel (Heidelberg: Winter, 1979); H. Sckommodau, Pygmalion be Franzosen un Deutschen im. 18. Jahrhundert (Wiesbaden: Steiner, 1970); H. Dörrie, Die schöne Galatea: eine Gestalt Rande des griechischen Mythos in antiker under neuzeitlicher Sicht (Munich: Heimeran, 1968); J.L. Car, “Pygmalion and the Philosophes,” JWCI 23 (1960): 239 – 55; M. Reinhold, CJ 66 (1971) 316 – 19; and J. Miller, “Some Versions of Pygmalion,” in C. Martindale, ed., Ovid Renewed (Cambridge UP, 1988).

Friday, September 19, 2014

Guthrie's 1957 Oedipus Rex fails (thank goodness!) to deliver on Netflix' promises


Oedipus Rex (dir. Tyrone Guthrie, 1957), a filmed staged performance of Sophocles’ 5th-century tragedy based upon an adapted translation by W.B. Yeats
—OGCMA0757NOTOedipus_SophoclesGuthrie
Howler Alert: Don’t trust the labels on Netflix discjackets: “Acclaimed actor-director Sir Tyrone Guthrie filmed this 1957 masterpiece production of Sophocles’s beloved Greek tragedy. Just as the ancient Greeks performed it, the actors here also wear masks, which add a classic touch. Oedipus Rex, the story of a Greek man who killed his father so he could marry his mother and quench his primal sexual thirst, has for centuries influenced countless plays and films.” … Really?  

Tyrone Guthrie's production of Oedipus Rex landmarked
the beginning of revivals of Greek tragedies in North America.
Sophocles’ “beloved” Greek tragedy? Could they mean beloved like chocolate ice cream or Maria Von Trapp? Who writes this stuff?!?    But then this: … Oedipus’ purpose for killing Laius was to bed his mother? C’mon! If ever a 20th-century reading could be planted upon a classical narrative, this label defines the attempt. Fortunately, it turns out, that back-formed reading of Oedipus goes no deeper than the label; and the content of this disc deserves a good close watching. But you'll need to be patient if you want to benefit.

Nothing seems really further from this production’s primary purpose than proving the Oedipus was driven by incestuous lust when he killed his real father. For the production’s prologue, delivered for the film audience by an actor who is overtly going to assume a mask and persona for the play, clarifies that we are about to participate in a sacramental experience. This Oedipus is going to present a “sacrifice of one man who died for the people, … the destruction of one man that his people might live.” To be sure, the purpose of Guthrie’s undertaking is present a ritualized drama, conceived and produced for the ennobling of the audience. Crafted in the shadow of the Cambridge Ritualists, Guthrie’s Sophocles is all about lionizing the Theban King’s selfless self-sacrifice to the god Apollo.

Analogue of Sophocles’ masterpiece, the filmed drama renders onto a stage the translation of W. B. Yeats. The production has the self-conscious air of monumentality. And, indeed, it is the filmed version of a stageplay that was the highlight of the 1955 Stratford, Ontario New Shakespeare Festival. The director, Sir Tyrone Guthrie, first projected the event as a minor feature; but, it became the Festival’s smash hit.

The actors of the Stratford (Shakespearean) Festival recreate for the cameras on a soundstage a  And the play remains to be the thing.
production of the classic drama. Set upon a multifaceted stage and shot from several camera angles as if in the round, this performance features actors in highly stylized masks and costumes. One or two cuts reveal, as if accidentally, that the analogue was not actually shot in one take. Dozens of quick cuts keep the viewer’s eye from tiring. High-angle shots and occasional close-ups instruct the viewer that the director, not the beholder, is in charge here. Still, the cinematic illusion leads the film’s viewer to believe in the analogue of a dramatic performance. The simple backdrop shows that the soundstage where this is filmed is of no great physical scope.

Yeats’ translation flows easily, even if it is overwhelmed in most deliveries here by the overwheening acting. The text is trimmed down somewhat, to the point that many favorite passages are tiny or non-extant. Creon, for instance (in my favorite speech), never gets to ask Oedipus why a second-in-power would really want to overthrow his king. Elsewhere, the Chorus adds background that Sophocles’ audience had no need of hearing (the opening choral “ode”). What the translator, however, does achieve is a composed heroization of the Greek hero, “a conception of an Oedipus who has achieved mythopoeic status”. (Macintosh, 310) Guthrie siezes upon that notion and tries to edify it.

21st century cinema audiences will be put off by the highly stylized acting. Blocking is dramatic to the extreme and often overwrought. Douglas Campbell as Oedipius pauses pregnantly each time Laius’ name is mentioned or considered. This notwithstanding, the text is very easy to follow. Indeed, what I criticize in the acting is actually pronounced to the clarity of the plot. Even a contemporary reviewer, not jaded by my generation’s need for visual thrills, notes that “As pure film [Guthrie’s Oedipus] has gaping flaws that are definitely distracting.” This is not really a film, but a stage play. Nor is it a play done as current audiences are accustomed to seeing, rather in many ways an overtly ritualized performance.

I wonder whether I am the only viewer who is disappointed by the remarkable lack of "chemistry" between Jocasta and Oedipus in this production. The 2013 OT by the Utah Classical Greek Theatre foregrounded an affectionate wife pleading to halt the inquest. And I come to  Guthrie's masked Jocasta fresh from deep viewings of Martha Graham's Night Journey and the erotically supercharged Edipo Alcalde in which Ángela Molina moves Jocasta into entirely new territory. Guthrie's production reminds me that for many generations, Oedipus' plight is all about him. Sophocles can really wrench your gut by delving into the mother's view — Remember that Eurydice in Antigone is also undone, not just Creon, by Haemon's grief. The pesky masking of the present Oedipus obfuscates, for me, the tragedy of Jocasta at a time in my life when I'm beginning to look for it more.

Those who have grown up with the cinematic flexibilities of CGI and FX or the like will grow impatient with this production. All the dialogue comes from actors whose entire faces, except for the chin, are covered by depersonalized masks. Of course, our age would scarcely tolerate a messenger’s speech in any context. Sophocles’ audience expected otherwise. “You shall see it!” responds the messenger when the Chorus asks him to describe Jocasta’s death. This moment cannot but remind us that we will see nothing but the words of the messenger.  Would a really modern production not actually impose this gruesome scene upon us? 5th-century staging forebade the playwright from forcing such upon the audience.
Oedipus thinks himself at the top of his game while he brow-
beats the prophetically nimble Tiresias. The avian costume is discomfiting.
 
Oedipus’ final blinding is tame and heroically discreet. Though the Messenger reports that “The blood poured down, and not with a few slow drops… in a dark cataract of scarlet!” when Guthrie’s Oedipus comes forth from the shadowy doorway, he is clothed in scarlet, not gold; bereft of the golden crown. Benighted now in a black veil, the final Oedipus is less physically anguished and more composed than other Oedipuses at this moment.This uncommonly restrained moment sows insightful understanding of Oedipus' grandest accomplishment, the clarity of vision he has striven for throughout his existence as demonstrated within the play. Bereft of all he has held dear, he can now appreciate illumination. This QED rewards the viewer who has tended through the production's discomfiting oddities.

I feel fortunate that I watched this film in solitude. Glad that I did not watch with teenagers, especially Oedipus’ interrogation of Tiresias. There would certainly have been lots of uncomfortable laughing.  Later, Oedipus’ rehearsal of his violent encounter with Laius is stirringly overwrought. The dramatic moments in this production involve histrionic gestures of lifted arms. Tiresias, the blind seer, is a walking characture. His costuming seems ripped from the pages of Mad Magazine’s Spy vs. Spy, or awfully like a marshmallow dripping into a campfire.

Guthrie is said to have regarded acting as a product of conscious style:
Style is an alarming word to American actors. They think of it as something assumed, something fancy and affected, something connected with being more elegant and flossy than anyone has a right to be in private life.It is hard to convince them that style in acting, as in dress, is concerned with appropriateness, with suitability to environment, and does not necessarily involve a great deal of elaborate mannerisms and posturing.” (IMDB.com provides no detail for this reference.)
Viewers who can suspend their naturally acquired tastes and invest in Guthrie's production will benefit from watching this rather clearly presented narrative of the western literature’s most humane hero, the ill-starred savior of Thebes.

___________________
RTM

Directed by Sir Tyrone Guthrie the year after winning 1956 Tony for directing Thornton Wilder’s “The Matchmaker”.

IMDB provides links to these and other contemporary reviews:

Aaron Cohen reviews the film in The Village Voice 6 February 1957; link: http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=Nd4QAAAAIBAJ&sjid=EIwDAAAAIBAJ&pg=4318,4156872&dq=movies&hl=en


Bosley Crowther reviews the film in New York Times 8 January 1957; link: http://www.nytimes.com/movie/review?_r=1&res=9506E5D6173EE23BBC4053DFB766838C649EDE
See also
Fiona Macintosh, “Tragedy in Performance: nineteenth- and twentieth-century productions,” in The Cambridge Companion to Greek Tragedy, ed. by P.E. Easterling (Cambridge UP, 1997): 284 – 323.
...But save for her treatment of other receptions M. McDonald, The Living Art of Greek Tragedy (Indiana UP, 2003): 95.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Hercules and Minerva at Thoreau's Walden

A former student, who might not need to remain nameless, shared the following observations with me. He comments on two mentions of classical mythology in Thoreau's On Walden Pond. I'd categorize them as OGCMA0249NOTAthena_Thoreau and  0556NOTHeraclesAugeas_Thoreau, respectively. Enjoy. Thanks, M.N.!

"So, I graduated and moved away so I don't have easy access to the Oxford Guide to Classical Mythology in the Arts to know if this usage was in there already or not; but, I did find a couple of usages during some leisure reading that you were probably already aware of, but just in case you didn't know them, I thought I would send them to help you in your quest to take over the world by recording all usages of classical myth. :) [The secret is getting out!]
Both usages are from Henry David Thoreau's Walden. The first of which is as follows:
The twelve labors of Hercules were trifling in comparison with those which my
neighbors have undertaken; for they were only twelve, and had an
end; but I could never see that these men slew or captured any
monster or finished any labor. They have no friend Iolas to burn with
a hot iron the root of the Hydra’s head, but as soon as one head is
crushed, two spring up... How many a poor immortal soul have I met well
nigh crushed and smothered under its load, creeping down the road of
life, pushing before it a barn seventy-five feet by forty, its Augean
stables never cleansed, and one hundred acres of land, tillage,
mowing, pasture, and wood-lot! The portionless, who struggle with
no such unnecessary inherited encumbrances, find it labor enough to
subdue and cultivate a few cubic feet of flesh. (Pages 7-8)
The smoking gun is clear enough, as is his meaning. It is hard to miss the call to live simply in Walden, and the fact that many people find themselves in ceaseless labor throughout their lives in order to satisfy their lavish and worldly desires, they are worse off than Hercules, who at least eventually finished his labors. [Thoreau's] poor countrymen labor endlessly, all their lives, and never have anything to show for it. No trophies, no accolades, and no reason to remember them after they are gone.

The second usage invokes the Minerva myth...
And when the farmer has got his house, he may not be the richer
but the poorer for it, and it be the house that has got him. As I
understand it, that was a valid objection urged by Momus against the
house which Minerva made, that she “had not made it movable, by
which means a bad neighborhood might be avoided;” and it may still
be urged, for our houses are such unwieldy property that we are often
imprisoned rather than housed in them; and the bad neighborhood to
be avoided is our own scurvy selves. I know one or two families, at
least, in this town, who, for nearly a generation, have been wishing to
sell their houses in the outskirts and move into the village, but have
not been able to accomplish it, and only death will set them free. (Pages 27-28)
Again, it is unfortunate that I was unable to grab a copy of the OGCMA to read up further on this mythical reference in a zero-grade setting, as it was I was forced to consult Wikipedia. 
It is telling that Thoreau would side with Momos, the minor figure who was ultimately cast out for his criticism of those in power. [See Hesiod Theog. 214, for the earliest mention of this personification of fault-finding.] Rather than siding with the major Gods as most narratives do, deriding Momos for his unjust and jealous criticism, [Thoroeau] claims that it was a valid objection. He would be no stranger to criticism for his writings, especially his essay on Civil Disobedience, in which he criticized government and its lack of morality, especially in matters of taxation. Perhaps, (and this may be a stretch) he means to draw a parallel between the foolish and vain Gods of antiquity and the unjust, overreaching government.

Just some thoughts. I didn't know who else to share them with that might get a kick of them, but I remembered you hoped that your students would continue to alert you to narrative gains and uses of classical myths."

— submitted by M.N. 30 June 2014

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Jocasta + Oedipus in the Colombian highlands: Oedipus Mayor is really about Jocasta


Oedipo Alcalde (Oedipus Mayor), 1996, Colombia (dir. J. Alí Triana), screenplay by Gabriel García Márquez et al.0758NOTOedipus_Triana


Edipo the dashing proponent of peace leaves the big city, venturing into the highlands where mob violence has threatened the utter destruction of the region. A nighttime standoff at the bridge into one village results in Edipo’s dispatching his unseen opponent with a single shot. A clean bullet-hole obscures the windshield, and nobody sees inside. Two and two will not be put together soon enough. And, as violence will beget violence, the search first for Laio, then for his killers, brings blood feuds to the surface of the small town, with Creonte  
leading the anarchy.
       It is not that the participants are too dumb. The problem is articulated by Creonte: since the army is too weak private militias are in local control. “Do you think it a coincidence that the mob should kidnap Laius just as you arrive, Mr. Mayor?” Next thing, Laius shows up dead. Yocasta says to Edipo, “You chose an ill fated day to appear.”Indeed.      
      Yocasta (Ángela Molina) has squandered most of her best years in a loveless marriage to Laio. But she soon learns love with the handsome newcomer; he reciprocates. Any viewer of a film called "Oedipus" will have recognized the direction of this steamy affair. And the director plays the eroticism way up. It earns an R-rating, to be sure. The first scene of intimacy is chillingly maternal. But the sordid reality of the affair dawns only very late upon the lovers. Where the adapted narrative seems to surpass even its brilliant Sophoclean source is in articulating how deeply Jocasta longs to plunge unpleasant memories of her newly departed husband into the depths of her desire for Edipo (Jorge Perugorría).
The Freudian element is gratefully underplayed for a 21st-century film. The filmmakers leave these details for the knowing viewer to grapple with. Far away are the heavy-handed treatments, say, of Cocteau's Œdipe and Jocaste bedding down beside the cradle of the bride's conspicuously lost child, as Jocaste undresses her "big baby" and he calls her "my little mother dear." Ugh! García Marquez and Triana are considerably more astute in their presentation of Jocasta's ill-fated passion. The abiding effects of Jocasta’s galling error linger into the film’s last frames and beyond. For, though Edipo plummets from a great height, the film closes with him groping through thickened traffic of an evening in Bogota, a scruffy beggar in the metropolis, far from the highlands where he was momentary king.  This film, though, is much less about him. Whereas Sophocles — and most of his adaptors — forces the chorus and audience to ponder the height of the Oedipal fall to these gore-filled eyeless sockets and clicking staff, the final blood in Triana’s film comes from the belly of Jocasta sprawled on the floor of her bedroom, a huge pair of shears piercing her belly and the incestuous foetus within. She has made sure their baby died first, then she herself.
The Jocasta contrived by García Marquez and company never enjoys the maternal pleasure of childbearing, for in its brevity her fling with Edipo does not bring those cursed children Antigone and her siblings into a potentially happy home. Yet, Sophoclean Jocasta did have those years that may well have been joyous. Why should they not have been? What with the queen of Thebes celebrating prosperity alongside the king who could do no wrong. Sophocles contrives her fall as appalling and swift. She sees, to be sure, the writing as it forms on the wall; and she urges her consort to halt his investigation. At that point she must know; and gradual discovery of Laius' murderer is the point beyond which Jocasta will never know happiness again. But Oedipo Alcalde offers an affair between Oedipus and Jocasta that is only about incipient erotic love and the gutwrenching effects on the partners.
In the space of a 100-minute film, this director allows Jocasta to enjoy a new side of herself with the welcoming heart of a man she must not love. When it comes undone, Jocasta’s world is as bitter as it ever was joyful.
Jane Davidson Reid’s Oxford Guide to Classical Mythology in the Arts, 1300 – 1990’s (Oxford UP, 1994) crowds all narratives about Jocasta into the articles s.v. “Oedipus”. Failing to differentiate between narratives, such as Oedipo Alcalde or Martha Graham’s Night Journey, that more fully emphasize the plight of Jocasta, is an oversight of the OGCMA. I would propose that this film be categorized not under Oedipus narratives, but especially among Jocasta narratives — OGCMA0623NOTJocasta_Triana. 

submitted by RTM

Monday, August 11, 2014

The Clash of the Perseids (2010): Percy Jackson v. Clash of the Titans, part I


 
My nifty new — and free for this entire semester (Thanks, OUP!) — Netflix subscription has allowed me to see a number of films I haven’t otherwise seen. This oversight is mostly due to the fact that I am too cheap to pay full price for cinema. But, Netflix has recently brought me on back-to-back nights the Percy Jackson Lightning Thief and the same year’s reride of The Clash of the Titans (2010). This post will deal with the latter, and next week I’ll write about Percy.

My stance on mythological usage has me scratching my head about Louis Letterrier’s film, based on a screenplay by Travis Beacham, Phil Hay, and Matt Manfredi. A handful of overt allusions to the 1981 Clash tend to classicize the predecessor. In fact, Beverley Cross' 1981 screenplay gets credited at IMDB. From the 1981 I thought Bubo had died a quaint mechanical death; but he’s back for a moment. The DVD’s frontmatter features the 1981 theatrical trailer, but it also includes an elaborate advert for the related video game. Casting Flora Robson to reprise her role as one of the Stygian Witches (i.e. the Graeae) for the remake is an amusing nod in homage.

In 2010, when the film’s ramp-up began, I watched the first trailer offered me, because I wanted to see whether the infamous Kraken would once again be released. To my chagrin, it was. To the redoubtable Liam Neeson befalls the odious burden of that fated line, “Release the Kraken.” … What is about this film that it compels directors to drag first Sir Laurence Olivier and now another Oscared actor to their shared post-prime nadir? However it works, the Kraken rides again. He’s back, and this time he’s really angry.

The screenplay committee has woven some fascinating novelties into the new script, though. I have no recollection of religious fanaticism running thematically through the 1981 film. The 21st Century gets to consider the effects of societal hubris, but it must be sure to steer clear of the mob’s inclination to fervor. The mob wants to see Andromeda dangle like bait for the dreaded Kraken. For Cassiopeia’s arrogance has provoked divine wrath. “[Andromeda is] more beautiful than Aphrodite herself. The Olympians should envy her. We are the gods now,” she boasts. But a satanic Hades arrives, as Maleficent in her fiery fury, to correct Cassiopeia’s course. For he causes the instantaneous aging and ugly death of Cassiopeia, who mere moments before was as lovely as Polly Walker.

This divine war against Olympus has been waged for years by the haughty Cepheus and his queen. The film begins with the accidental death of Perseus’ adoptive family, who find themselves at the precisely wrong spot of coastline when Cepheus’ henchmen are toppling a colossal votive of Zeus into the sea. Who knew that Cepheus was in on this too? My whole life it has seemed to be Cassiopeia’s arrogance alone that provoked the gods. In this new film, the king too is complicit for pilaging temples, toppling statues, starving the Olympians of the sacrifices they live on, and plotting a war to rival the Titanomachy.

When classical mythographers considered a cranky Olympus, they had Zeus wipe out mankind by sending the Great Flood, ending the generations of wickedness and causing earthlings to begin anew with Deucalion and Pyrrha. The now classic (?) Clash of the Titans (1981) presented Perseus as the savior of Joppa and by extension all mankind. At least this writing team is smart enough to put Perseus in Argos, even if the comic-book CGI sea-side landscape is not even remotely like unto Peloponessian Argos. The new Clash adds the peculiar twist that the Argives really do not deserve salvation. The mob is despicable; the monarchy also. But moreover, Perseus expresses no desire to remain with Andromeda in Argos and become the Argive king who sorts it out. Maybe the generation raised on Marvel needs its superhero to remain aloof at the end of his quest.

Hades, classically speaking, is not satanic. King of the Underworld though he may be, Greeks did not see him as a tempter. Indeed, LDS audiences might find the most fascinating vignette of this film to be the discussion on Olympus in which Hades (Ralph Fiennes) discusses with Zeus (Neeson) the desirability to compel mortals to worship the gods. Zeus’ inclination to allow men to choose for themselves resonates in an interesting way.

Io. Here she is not a cow. Rather, Io is an intriguing divine presence who inspires and prods the Letterrier Perseus toward his destined potential. Her perspective sees Danaë’s impregnation altogether differently than the classical versions. For my money, the reworking of Io is far and away the most interesting feature of this new film. From her initially unidentified narrative introduction — she explains the Titanomachy, the conception of the Kraken, the tyranny of Zeus (as if she knew her Aeschylus) — to the final coaching of Perseus, the daughter of Inachus is worth examining in small detail. She of all mortals knows best the lumps that come from contact with the King of Gods and Men.

How about those Titans, though? Did it bother anybody but me that the 1981 Clash included no Titans? That film’s plot was a clash of the Olympians. A bitter Calibos urges his mother, Thetis (… huh?), to right his wrong by releasing the Kraken. Olympians Zeus and Poseidon also control this mythical monstrosity. But where are the Titans? Send in the Titans! So, when this new generation’s remake is equally bereft of the Overreachers, though the Stygians do celebrate a catastrophic pitting of “A Titan against a Titan!”

Did I mention the stunning Pegasus footage throughout? It’s pretty cool. Had the 2010 Perseus zipped about on borrowed talaria, the CGI team would have had much less to do. So, let’s overlook the filmmakers’ impulse to have Perseus mount Belerophon’s steed.

So, in summary: purists might sneer down their long noses at the 2010 Clash for its lack of mythological fidelity. I might even admit the occasional inclination to that myself. But the religious fervor and especially the remarkable insertion of Io, to the extermination of Athena, make this film worth considering on deeper levels. 

— RTM

Friday, July 18, 2014

Yourgrau's Song of Jacob Zulu measured against Aeschylus' Oresteia


Tug Yourgrau mentions Aeschylus’ Oresteia among the sources that influenced his 1992 stageplay The Song of Jacob Zulu.[1] Born a white South African, Yourgrau bases his first published drama upon the trial of Andrew Zondo, a young black man who confessed to killing four shoppers at a Durban mall by detonating a shrapnel bomb. Dozens of innocent people were also injured in the incident. Yourgrau’s courtroom drama engages issues of justice and atonement. It is called by some critics an oresteia.
Steppenwolf Theatre (Chicago), production of
The Song of Jacob Zulu (1992); from the Theatre's website.

Oresteias narrate the plight of the House of Atreus in its critical emergence from the Trojan War. The Rape of Helen precipitated the War; the murder of Agamemnon punctuated its conclusion. But closure could not come to the Atreidai until Orestes avenged his father’s homicide through matricide and endured humanity’s most gut-wrenching dilemma. One young man is obligated to atone for all the ills of all Tantalus’ posterity. It is the equivalent, in Greek mythological terms, of one individual’s reversal of the effects of Adam’s transgression.

Jacob Zulu is Yourgrau’s literary creation, a character whose crime parallels Andrew Zondo’s. According to his creator, Jacob’s name recalls the protagonist of Genesis. The character’s parents are portrayed as god-fearing Christians, the Rev. and Mrs. Zulu staunchly advocating the value of righteousness and confession. Aside from the Reverend’s advanced social status, the elder Zulus would scarcely bear any resemblance to Orestes’ notorious parents, Agamemnon and Clytemnestra. The social circumstances of young Jacob’s upbringing, we learn during the dramatized trial, have created an environment where the murder of innocents effects somehow a bright day for ending the human stain of Apartheid.

Yourgrau’s narrative is conceived as a tragedy and constructed from tragic conventions, as well. A nine-man chorus is comprised of a vocal group complete with leader and choral responsion. Yourgrau overtly connects the play’s chorus to the iconic acapella ensemble Ladysmith Black Mambazo. The chorus participates at key moments throughout the play portraying the sentient activities of various groups throughout the action. They sing traditional South African songs as Jacob’s congregations, his high-school class, the guerillas of the African National Congress who indoctrinate him, and ultimately the courtroom spectators who must watch him hanged. Clearly Yourgrau heeds classical Greek tragic form. But two important external coincidences flow into the fictionalization of the drama:  Yourgrau had developed an emotional attachment to the music of Ladysmith before he wrote the play, and one of Ladysmith’s founders, Joseph Shabalala, had been murdered as a result of racial tensions connected to Apartheid.

Against this frightening social backdrop, Yourgrau casts the tragic narrative of Jacob Zulu as a young man who, though driven under the rigors of courtroom cross-examination, refuses to bear witness against the ANC who pressed him to his crime. Rather, Jacob puts his faith in Jesus. “If I could give part of my flesh to th[e survivors and their families], I would do it gladly.” But most importantly, he pleads for cessation of retaliation: “I hope that the South African Defense Forces do not retaliate for these deaths.” Jacob Zulu mounts the gallows expecting that his demeanor in the docket has warranted God’s full forgiveness.  “I am not sad, really, because my soul is going to glory. … And I hope that my life is a lesson to my brother Martin and to all the youth.”

Generous interpretations of The Song of Jacob Zulu conclude that “the Christ-like life and death of the Orestes figure brings about an end to violence.”[2] And the play’s choral epilogue articulates the same hope before the empty gallows. “This is the song of a young man called Jacob Zulu,” the Leader sings, “who suffered for the sins of South Africa. This is the song of those for whom the good news of the end of apartheid comes too late.” Chronologically seen, Andrew Zondo’s 1986 execution anteceded the negotiations by Frederik Willem de Klerk (1990) and Nelson Mandela’s eventual release and success in the 1994 elections. The Song’s 1992 premier announced the “end of apartheid” on the grounds of the 1991 official abolition of apartheid laws.

Further, Yourgrau’s intro, written June 1993 (in the weeks after the play closed on Broadway): “As I write this, news reports announce the setting of a date in early 1994 for free, democratic elections in South Africa. I wish deeply that this comes to pass — and with a minimal loss of life. Nine thousand people have died in political fighting in the three years since Nelson Mandela was freed. A new day may be dawning in South Africa, but the birth is traumatic, and it is still very possible that the labor pangs will kill the child. History, I am afraid, will claim many more victims before a free South Africa comes into being.”[3]

A confessed terrorist, Jacob Zulu’s “Christ-like” lifestyle may be questioned. And the assessment that Jacob’s confession and willing execution wrought “an end to violence” is the playwright’s narrative contrivance. Historical fact may not bear Yourgrau’s connection between cause and effect.

My critical sensibilities — whatever they are worth — resist too blithe connection between this narrative and the great Oresteia of Aeschylus. Yourgrau set out “to tell the story of a young man such as Andrew [Zondo] in the form of a Greek drama, but with an African twist: Aeschylus set in Zululand.” That intent notwithstanding, Stefan Tilg’s assessment goes too far when he refers to “Tug Yourgrau’s South African version [of the Orestes myth], The Song of Jacob Zulu (1993, a success on Broadway), in which the Christ-like life and death of the O[restes] figure brings about an end to violence.”

Orestes’ plight is thrust upon him by circumstances well outside his own actions. Fate has destined him for the role of avenger who must sully himself with matricide. Jacob Zulu was raised in a respectable family amidst circumstances that brought him into contact with murderous creatures. Peers of Jacob, as is true of Andrew Zondo, endured unthinkable oppression and hardship because of the color of their skin. In Yourgrau’s overarching assessment the bomber was “an innocent, bright boy whom the fates — in this case, the apartheid system — ground up and destroyed.” The tales, however, end differently: Jacob Zulu’s brilliant resolution comes about at some future time; Orestes’ absolution from blood-guilt is effected with great suffering and decisively in the lawcourts of Athens. That is the story of Aeschylus’ Eumenides, that critical third element in the great dramatic trilogy.

As conceived by Aeschylus, the tale of Orestes is not a tragedy, in that modern sense — a narrative of a protagonist who is ground up and destroyed. Rather, the classical Oresteia is a dramatic production that leads toward a remarkable sea-change, an end to primal vengeance. Within the narrative confines of Orestes’ dramatic experience, as it is played out for the audience in the theatre, Orestes endures a three-phase survival from catastrophic ruin. The cycle of human revenge persists while the savior is helpless to stop it in Agamemnon. That cycle brings him into active perpetration in Choephori. And finally, the tragic hero’s needful “suffrance into truth” snatches Orestes from the brink of personal catastrophe even as Athena’s ascendancy over Apollo rescues all mankind from the brink of cosmic annihilation.

Yourgrau’s play emerges hopefully from darkness and moves forward with an expression of hope, a prayer. Aeschylus instructs the audience that emergence from that darkness will necessitate cooperation of human endurance and extreme divine ingenuity.

The structure of Aeschylus affects Yourgrau’s play far more than the comparison of Orestes to Jacob allows.  Because of the disconnect, I do not think one can really call The Song of Jacob Zulu a “version” of the Oresteia. Stefan Tilg seems to be following the lead offered by Kevin Wetmore, whose book The Athenian Sun in an African Sky (2002) presented Yourgrau’s play as such.  Yourgrau admits that his play is structurally related to “the great Greek dramas, especially Aeschylus’ Oresteia and Sophocles’ Oedipus cycle” whence inspiration and guidance came. And the playwright does observation that his tale of the Zondo trial is “Aeschylus set in Zululand.” Yet, if the cosmic magnitude of Jacob’s trial can be compared to Orestes’ trail at the Areopagus, that is if the critical impasse of Jacob’s guilty innocence is equivalent to Orestes’, then we must submit to the playwrights’ conclusions and forgive Yougrau for obliging his audience to connect the dots between his play and Aeschylus’.

Tug Yourgrau’s Song of Jacob Zulu is not a great play in the magnitude of Aeschylus in Argos. The end of apartheid, however, may be as glorious a human event as the judicial intervention that ended the cyclic violence of the Tantalids. But, structurally, the glimmering optimism that races through the epilogue of The Song is a pale representative of the rigorous conclusion worked out by Aeschylus for his 5th-century audience. Had Yourgrau striven to the same end, I might be inclined to celebrate his literary accomplishment more energetically. As it is, The Song of Jacob Zulu resonates more as a version of Choephori than as a version of the grand collective, The Oresteia. In that sense, the play ends with a promise of hope rather than with a celebration of resolution achieved.



[1] Tug Yourgrau, The Song of Jacob Zulu (New York: Arcade, 1993), viii-xi. The play premiered in Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre in April 1992, and ran a peculiar course for seven weeks on Broadway in late Winter 1993. Bruce Weber, “Case of the Vanished Audience,” NYT 7May1993, C4. Weber attributes the play’s early closure not to artistic problems but to economic factors: discounted tickets to less affluent clientele undermined word-of-mouth publicity. Cf. B. Weber, “Author of Jacob Zulu faces unpleasant choice,” NYT 19 Feb 1993, C2.
[2] (S. Tilg), s.v. “Orestes” in Reception of Myth and Mythology, ed. by M. Moog-Grünewald.
[3] Yourgrau, Song of Jacob, introduction xii.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Zeus chills with Ben & Jerry's Strawberry Shortcake GSFY

Ben & Jerry's Greek Style Frozen Yogurt comes in Strawberry Shortcake flavor. I wouldn't know this, except it was advertized recently in the Kings Cross/St Pancras station of the London Underground.
1068NOTZeus_Ben&Jerrys.htm
 Unilever USA offers on its "Brands in Action" website a highly amusing video that animates the vignette shown in the billboard above. Zeus chills on a strawberry top, a air-conditioner whirs in the firmament; outdoors enthusiasts ski and kletter on the yogurt-topped peaks beneath him. The detail of the video is extraordinary, as the image below shows: the Jovian reading material is titled, his chair-back features Heracles wrestling the Nemean Lion, and (not shown here) the thunderbolts hurled by the sky-god fly with Olympian determination.
Click the image for a link to the Unilever USA Brands in Action website.
Who deserves credit for this little moment of advertizing brilliance? I am able at the moment only to credit Unilever USA; but I would like to attribute it more precisely.

Narrative gain? Ben & Jerry's BSFY seems to originate on Olympus beneath the aegis of a jealous Zeus.