Tuesday, September 4, 2012

The Orpheus Film Festival: Pushing Daisies

The next few posts will deal with the individual constituents of the "Orpheus Film Festival." A handful of great cinematic (or sort-of-cinematic) narratives has been chosen to get students thinking about the Orpheus myth. The film festival is also designed to spark some thinking about the complexities and complications of mythological reception.

Lee Pace and Anna Friel play at the narrative of Orpheus Eurydice in Pushing Daisies (Bryan Fuller, creator; ABC 2007-2009) OGCMA0796NOTOrpheusEurydice_Fuller
Bryan Fuller's biography leads from one successful screenwrite to another — several episodes of Star Trek: Voyager, Wonderfalls, Dead Like Me, Pushing Daisies. The last two involve remarkable treatments of death and life-after-death. To my eye, though, Fuller's first engagement with narrative material from a classical source is Pushing Daisies.

The premise for the entirety of Pushing Daisies is uncannily similar to the fundamentals of the Orpheus myth. Ned is a artist who deals in pie. Somewhere in his life he acquired a gift that allows him to revive the dead with a simple touch. If he touches that person a second time, the person dies a second death and may not be revived.

Ned's gift equips him to make the most remarkable pie. In a later episode we see him revive some moldy strawberries. Put those in a pie.

Compare Orpheus. He is not merely a great lover. He is the greatest singer the world has ever known. The ability to animate the landscape and charm living things comes by birth to him, the son of Calliope. Thus empowered, Orpheus proceeds to the Underworld to recover the soul of his fatally snakebit bride, Eurydice.

Anna Friel's Charlotte "Chuck" in PD was the childhood crush of Lee Pace's Ned. Some 20 years after their first and only kiss, she shows up murdered in the mortuary, when Ned comes to call. Knowing that his kiss will revive her, he indulges, reanimates the body, and begins the challenging task of never touching her ever again.

I worry about reception. For me, it makes a difference whether PD's narrative premise is actually (i.e. purposefully, knowingly, overtly, etc.) based upon the Orpheus myth or whether the two premises are merely related archetypes. Linda Hutcheons' "rules" of adaptation help me worry about such things. If Bryan Fuller ever tips his hand and shows me that he "knows" he is using the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, then I will say I've caught him holding a smoking gun. Then I'll know that the many similarities in the series's narrative are intentional, that the show's creator did not merely stumble upon a narrative that was "like" that tale of Orpheus and Eurydice; rather, I'll be able to say that Ned is an Orpheus and Chuck in a Eurydice.

I owe the original observation for this connection between PD and Orpheus/Eurydice to a former MA student, Chris Haney, who developed the thesis in a great paper he read at the Classical Association of the Middle West and South in 2010. Haney observes a slew of narrative similarities and tries to catch Fuller holding that smoking gun, the evidence that shows he knew he was dealing with Orpheus/Eurydice per se (and not merely a familiar old plot line). I don't think Haney would ever say he caught Fuller.

I found today a contemporary review of Pushing Daisies from 3 October 2007, the day the PD pilot aired on ABC. Dozens such reviews are archived in internet resources. The review by Robert Lloyd in The Los Angeles Times (3 Oct 2007) is the only published piece that articulates agreement with Haney's thesis. Lloyd:

Fairy tales have been told to children for years, but they weren’t ‘made’ for them the way, say, ‘The Backyardigans’ of ‘Hannah Montana’ are. They’re shared currency, the myth and yarns of our world, and the charge they carry flows across borders and time and age brackets. There’s an old story at the back of ‘Pushing Daisies’ — the one about Orpheus fetching Eurydice from the underworld. Forbidden to look back at her as they trudge Earthward, he does anyway, and she’s dead again. Whatever that is supposed to tell you about having your cake and eating it too or listening when teacher talks, the tragedy of losing again what you managed extraordinarily to regain is clear and powerful enough. click link here

The issue that will continue to keep me awake is this: Just because Haney and Lloyd (and Macfarlane) believe there PD is built on Orphic mythological material, Bryan Fuller doesn't necessarily admit to it. ... And does it matter whether Fuller does or not.

The Orpheus Film Festival includes one episode from Pushing Daisies, the opening episode of season two, and episode called "Bzzzzzzzzz!" And here's what I think clinches it as a narrative with undeniable connections to the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice: the opening spot where Chuck revives her hive of bees by pouring their dead corpses over Ned's shoulders, which brings them back to life.

In Vergil's Georgics, a beekeeper named Aristaeus suffers the devastating loss of all his hive. He prays to his mother, the nymph Arethusa, and asks how his livelihood could be taken from him in a feel blow. Aristaeus learns after much inquiry and effort that he is personally responsible for the loss of his bees, for when he pursued the lovely Eurydice he unwittingly effected her death as she stepped upon a snake and died from the bite. Aristaeus receives instruction that allows him to appease the disturbed gods and bring his hive back from death. No small part of Aristaeus's instruction has to do with learning the details of Orpheus's recovery of Eurydice from the world of the dead.

Vergil's account of Orpheus and Eurydice abides still, alongside the slightly later version in Ovid's Metamorphoses as the classical narrative of the Orpheus/Eurydice myth.

I wonder whether PD season two, episode one reveals enough of the bee matter that I might be able to surmise from it that Fuller knows Orpheus in a classical, esoteric way. Sometimes when I watch this episode, I think I've finally got him! Sometimes, I think I'm fantasizing.

Watch it and see for yourself.

Other films in the Orpheus Film Festival are shown to enrolled class members only, via a streaming feed that emanates from BYU College of Humanities Digital Lab. This one, however, is unique in my offering merely a link to the Warner Brothers website, where the entire episode is available for free viewing. Go have a look. Feel free to respond in the comments below.

posted by RTM

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