Sunday, April 7, 2013

It all began with the Argo

The Argonautica was the fore-runner to all western literature. It was the heroic event that happened before the Trojan War. Two of classical literature's greatest works start with reference to the Argo's sailing, the beginning of the end. Events on board the ship started a process that resulted in the end Troy. Jason's assembly of a dream-team crew and their journey to distant Colchis  introduced acquisitiveness and greed to Greece. Long before Agamemnon launched a thousand ships for Helen; and before Paris took her away, the sailing of the Argo pitted West and East in the first international act of aggression. For the son of Achilles is, of course, the famous offspring of Thetis and the argonaut Peleus. Had the Argo never sailed, no Marriage of Peleus and Thetis, no Apple of Discord,  no Judgement of Paris, no Rape of Helen, no Achilles, no Fall of Priam, no Trojan Women... The sailing of the Argo really started it all.

So, before a long flight I rented on iTunes and watched Ben Affleck's highly successful film wondering whether there would be a moment where the screenplay would admit that it was working with the ominous mythological usage. Would there be an allusion to the classical myth?

The situation was laid. For the 1979 storming of the US embassy in Tehran created a real East/West conflict. Stealth, chutzpah, brawn, amazing teammates... In short, all the things that famously allowed Jason to walk into far-away Colchis and ask for the return of Golden Fleece — expecting to get it! — were the essential plot elements of Tony Mendez' brilliant sleight of hand that sprung a clutch of American diplomats from the beneath the noses of their revolutionary captors. The CIA's mission in this high-stakes heist could fairly pass as a sort of Argonautica. And I was sort of hoping to see a moment where somebody said something like "we're gonna storm Tehran, Mr. President, and return from the East with the booty they wrongly possess, Sir." And Jimmy Carter or some cabinet member was going to say something like, "That'd be just like Jason waltzing in and demanding Phrixus' Golden Fleece."

I read the imdb blurb. It looked promissing. I really only know this narrative from the film at this point. I must read Mendez' book. In the cinematic version the screenwriters do tip their hand. They make two mythological allusions and sharply foreground the reference to the classical voyage of the Argo in such a way that the reference is clear and overt.

The film unfolds the process whereby Mendez (Ben Affleck) comes upon the notion of forming a mock film production company which pretends to be earnest in the creation of the world's worst "Star Wars rip-off". Once he hatches the it-just-might-work hair-brained idea of sending a filmcrew to Tehran, in fact Mendez assembles a little dream-team as Jason did. Jason packed the Argo with all the great heroes from the generations before Troy. The film's script show Mendez et co. plowing through mountains of dreadful scripts, looking for that stinker, they happen upon and reject one called "The Horses of Achilles". This is rejected as having to do with the Trojan War, even if Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) thinks it sounds like a western. This overt reference to classical myth, though, is preceded in the film by the appearance of the masterful makeup artist, John Chambers (John Goodman) enters the film on the set of a weird-out sci-fi film at the moment that some shapely "lab assistant" is tending to some operation upon a freakish and virile minotaur. You definitely get the sense that these Hollywood producers are more interested in applying classical myth to sci-fi than George Lucas cared to allow. And they want to tell you they could, if they wanted to.

Once Mendez and Siegel and Goodman hatch the plan to produce their film "Argo", they undertake the shameless (faux) promotion of the film. They schedule a big script reading, complete with press coverage. At the reading, a journalist presses the brash Siegel with questions about the Argonautica. Is this script related to the classical myth? Is there a Jason? Does anybody watching know about the Argo? I consider this overt special pleading. Such moments foreground the smoking gun. The moment in the film, though, is played for yucks, when the producer says something really rude to the journalis, something along the lines of "Ar, Go Jump in the Lake." (Only he doesn't really say anything about a lake. It's line that is repeated many times through the film's remainder. I think it's supposed to be funny.)

The screenwriters in that moment reveal that, indeed, they do know something about the classical myth. They want the viewer to know that they know. But, alas, I have to conclude in the end that we were not on the same wavelength. All that code I want to bring to an allusion to Jason's voyage — acquisition, primal violation of human society, the introduction of deceit into the world, etc. — seems to have been lost on them. They did clearly work it in on purpose; but they missed so many opportunities to ...   OK, I guess I need to just write it myself.

On the big question — does the mythological allusion qualify as a "smoking gun"? — the answer is yes. Ergo = OGCMA0617NOTJasonArgonauts_Affleck.
    In case anybody cares, I intend to assign the usage to Affleck, the director, especially because he crafted the smoking-gun scene with the journalist. If Tony Mendez' autobiographical book, The Master of Disguise, uses the mythological allusion, then I'll distinguish between the book and film by listing the book as ...0617NOTJasonArgonauts_Mendez.

To weigh the idea of how the Argo initiates human malady, consider these two instances.

Medea's nurse foreshadows the deepest domestic tragedy ahead when she begins the prologue with the Argo. "If only the Argo's hull had never flown through the deep-blue Symplegades and penetrated the land of Colchis! If only the pine on the slopes of Pelion had never been cut and felled! If only the hands of heroes who went after the golden fleece for Pelias had never seized the oar!" (Eur. Med. 1-6)

Εἴθ’ ὤφελ’ Ἀργοῦς μὴ διαπτάσθαι σκάφος
Κόλχων ἐς αἶαν κυανέας Συμπληγάδας,
μηδ’ ἐν νάπαισι Πηλίου πεσεῖν ποτε
τμηθεῖσα πεύκη, μηδ’ ἐρετμῶσαι χέρας
ἀνδρῶν ἀριστέων οἳ τὸ πάγχρυσον δέρος
Πελίαι μετῆλον.
The Medea by Euripides holds few surprises for 21st-century audiences, because we know the horrifying story. The Nurse foreshadows the tale's tragic end by allusion at the play's outset to the sailing of the Argo, the beginning of "it all."

Catullus 64 begins at the same spot of human history. Pelion's deforestation, plans to steal another nation's treasure, and the sweeping of the sea. "Once the pines begotten upon Pelion's summit, they say, sailed through Neptune's watery waves to the surge of Phasis and Aeetes' lands. Chosen youth, the stock of Argive loins, seeking to steer away the Colchians' golden fleece, dared to hasten the salty sealanes in their ship as they swept the blue deep plane with fir fronds." (Cat. 64.1-7)
Peliaco quondam prognatae vertice pinus
dicuntur liquidas Neptuni nasse per undas
Phasidos ad fluctus et fines Aeeteos,
cum lecti iuvenes, Argivae robora pubis,
auratam optantes Colchis avertere pellem
ausi sunt vada salsa cita decurrere puppi,
caerula verrentes abiegnis aequora palmis.
Before it's all over, Catullus 64 will have led its reader through intensely personal heart-ache — the appalling desertion of Ariadne on the shore —  through an ambiguous prophecy regarding Achilles' tragic fate, and then to a epilogue on overall human degeneracy.

Between Catullus and Euripides a ghostland of literary aftifacts walk like the undead. Apollonius of Rhodes conceived the Argonautica in the spirit of learned Alexandrianism, losing details of his agenda on first-time readers everytime the new-age epic is read. Latin literature's Golden Age masterpieces could not have been conceived without Apollonius, nor without the work of Ennius. His Medea Exul opens with a stunning reappropriation of Euripides' prologue:

Utinam ne in nemore Pelio securibus
caesa accidisset abiegna ad terram trabes,
neve inde navis incohandi exordium
coepisset, quae nunc nominatur nomine
Argo, quia Argivi in ea delecti viri
vecti petebant pellem inauratam arietis
Colchis, imperio regis Peliae, per dolum.
Nam nunquam era errans mea domo ecferret pedem
Medea, animo aegra, amore saevo saucia.

Deforestation, overseas acquisition, deceit. Intercultural love affairs. Without these, Medea might now be happy. This nurse sees it this way. Interesting is that Ennius turns the events into a different order.  But, this is getting way out of hand. Maybe more on another day.....


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