Sunday, October 20, 2013

New post on Swords, Sorcery, Sandals and Space

New round-up post on Swords, Sorcery, Sandals and Space: ‘Atlantis, conferences, Kieron Gillen and loads of other stuff’.

Wednesday, September 04, 2013

Two posts on the Buffyverse

[At the Nine Worlds Geek Fest last month, I was part of a panel on the feminism in Joss Whedon's work. For that, I went back to a couple of pieces I wrote on Buffy and Angel, but had not widely distributed. In case there's any interest, I reprint them here. The Buffy piece was written in June 2003, about a month after I had seen 'Chosen'. The Angel piece was written in April 2004, immediately after seeing 'Shells', but before seeing any of the remaining Angel episodes (some of which I've still never seen). I haven't revisited the episodes or updated anything.]

What Buffy Season 7 is about

I should point out that this is very much my own personal view.

More than a decade ago, I guess, Joss Whedon was watching a girl being stalked in some slasher/horror, and thought, 'Wouldn't it be great if the girl turned round and beat the crap out of him?' Thus was born Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

So I think it's appropriate that, for the final season, Buffy has returned to some of the themes that attended its creation, the refusal of the female to play the role the man expects of her. Because what I think is that Season 7 is full-on Buffy-as-feminist-tract.

Buffy is fighting a war, the terms of which were set by others long ago. The course of action along which Buffy is being led for a long time looks hopeless. But Buffy finally wins, because she changes the rules.

Now you could argue that the message of the season is simply 'make your own rules', as Joss did when bringing his vision to life. Caleb then becomes a warning of what happens when you take such a philosophy too far; you believe that you are god, and hold the power of life and death over others. I'm sure that's part of it, but it's hardly a new message. Buffy has been breaking the rules for seven years - we are surely meant to infer that the secret of her success is her disregard of the Watchers' Council's tradition of keeping 'civilians' like Xander and Willow as far out of the Slayer's activities as possible.

But there is much emphasis in this season on the fact that the parameters of the war have been set by men. This comes out most clearly in 'Chosen', when Buffy says that the rule that there could only be one Slayer was set by men, and that 'this woman' (Willow) is more powerful than any of them. But it's been set up in the previous episode, when Buffy meets the guardian, one of a line of women who have watched over the Slayers ever since being less than impressed with how the Shadow Men created the First Slayer. She gives Buffy a weapon forged by women for the Slayer. But unlike the patriarchal Shadow Men, she does not tell Buffy how to use it - that Buffy has to figure out for herself.

With this in mind one can look anew at Buffy's encounter with the Shadow Men in 7.15 ('Get It Done'). At the time, it looked to me as if Buffy was being merely petulant, rejecting power that might be vitally necessary to defeat the First Evil, simply because she didn't like the way the Shadow Men had created the Slayer. But I now see that for dramatic purposes it was vital that she turn down the power offered her. To have accepted it would have been to continue to be a tool of their patriarchal way of doing things. It is for the same reasons that Giles, father-figure and representative of the patriarchal approach, must be rejected and shown to be wrong, before being accepted back into the fold as an equal. Buffy's allies are mostly women, and in the final battle, only Spike of her male allies (and of whose 'emasculation' Lilian Edwards has spoken elsewhere), fights in the Hellmouth. All the other males are relegated to the lesser struggle in the school - though as Anya and Dawn are also up there, I may be reading too much into this!

Buffy's enemies also reflect this theme. The Übervamps are all male, as are the Bringers. And there is Caleb. I gather there's been a lot of complaining about the lack of originality of Caleb, but to me, with hindsight, he pretty much has to be the way he is. If Season 7 is about women defying the roles men impose on them, such as that of victim, then it is right that Caleb should be the ultimate in men trying to impose themselves on women, a misogynistic murderer of young girls - a typical slasher film villain, in fact. (Season 7 generally draws on the slasher genre far more than any other season.) And this is why he is killed through an extreme act of emasculation. Only The First Evil itself is sexually ambiguous, taking on both male and female forms. But only a male is strong enough to be its 'vessel'.

This being the theme, it is also one of the reasons why Buffy has to live past the end of the season. On some levels, an early death is what seven seasons have led us to expect. Much of the first season is themed around the idea that a Slayer's life is brutal and short. But, not only would Buffy's death be Joss Whedon repeating himself after the end of Season Five, but for Buffy to die would be to send the message that breaking the patriarchal mould carries a heavy price. And that would be the wrong message. (Interestingly, the major characters who do die in the final battle, i.e. not including the Slayer 'cannon-fodder', are the two reformed mass murderers. One wonders if Whedon chose them deliberately because in the end they could only atone for their past crimes through death. But that's another story.)

Instead of dying, Buffy changes the world. She helps all the Potentials achieve their potential, in a way that even those who might have been Chosen would never have done under the patriarchal eye of the, presumably now defunct, Watchers' Council. At the end of the season, the girls have grown up, become women, and control their own destinies.

What of the idea, in wide circulation in Buffy fandom, that the season was about leadership? Well, there's certainly something to be said for that. Buffy learns lessons about leadership - that consensus is better than diktat, that whilst someone always has to lead and take decisions, they have to have the confidence of the people they lead, and that this confidence cannot be taken as a given. In this respect, the much-derided throwing out of Buffy at the end of 7.19 ('Empty Places') is actually a necessary occurrence - her initial style of leadership needs to be rejected, and when she returns she has a new style.

I also think there is in the last episode the message that your teenage gang has to break up eventually. There's a moment where the four who were together at the beginning are stood with each other. First the father figure Giles departs, and then the other three go off as one, but gradually split to go to their own part of the action. Such is life. We all have destinies that take us away from those we grew up with.

So that's what I think Season 7 was about. You might argue that it was done unsubtly, or without inspiration, but that's a value judgment and that isn't what I'm trying to do here. I now await being torn to pieces. Or staked.

The cancellation of Angel ...

 ... or how I learned to stop worrying and love the Warner Brothers executives.

You know, I'm now glad there are only six episodes left.

In the most recent couple of episodes of Angel ('A Hole in the World' and 'Shells'), Fred's body was taken over by Illyria, an ancient demon from before history. Permanently. As in forever. Amy Acker may still be in the show, but it's plain from the elegiac ending of last night's episode, a flashback to her leaving her parents to go to L.A., that Winifred Burkle is gone for good, and we should not entertain any hopes of a miraculous restoration. Fred, if you'll forgive the cliché, is dead.

This has upset me a bit, and you may want to view the following as simply a hurt response. But I think (of course) that there are points to be made.

At any point in a series, the death of a continuing character, especially one as vibrant as Fred, would be traumatic. Coming only three episodes after Cordelia was killed off, it's heart-rending. And for me, it's too far.

It has been suggested to me that Angel might have jumped the shark with the previous episode ('Smile Time'), where Angel was turned into a Muppet. I don't agree - whilst not as funny as it ought to have been, that episode worked. The shark has been jumped, nevertheless.

The first thing is, Joss Whedon is now repeating himself, and not just because it's so recently that a continuing character (albeit one who hadn't appeared regularly this season) had been killed off. In the previous episode to this two-parter, Wes and Fred finally got together. Wes has been in love with Fred for a couple of years - at last he gets the woman of his dreams, only to have her snatched away before the relationship had a chance to bloom. This is not the first time this has happened in Angel. At the end of Season 3, Angel and Cordelia were on the verge of declaring their feelings for one another, but instead Angel got sunk in the sea and Cordy ascended to a higher plane. And it happened in Buffy too - remember Tara and Willow finally getting back together and Amber Benson making the titles at last, only for Tara to be shot dead at the end of the episode? And something similar happened with Giles and Jenny Calendar. This has become a Whedon device, as tired as Stephen King always having someone who's figured out what's going on, only to be bumped off before they can do anything (a device King stole in the first place from Psycho).

It isn't just the repetitiveness. It's the dark, joyless tone events like this give the Buffyverse. At the end of the last episode, Wesley has a speech about how, despite all the pain and misery of the human condition, there's still love, and there's still hope. But the message of Angel these days is that hope is futile. Love, whether it's Wes' for Fred, or Angel's for his son, will always be thwarted.

That's a pretty bitter and twisted view of life. Granted, I may have expressed it myself from time to time, but even then I think I knew it was bitter and twisted. I don't know what's going on inside Joss Whedon's head these days, but I'm glad I don't live there. Of course, maybe he just overdosed on Love Story at a young age, and has never worked it out of his system.

Or perhaps he's trying to say something about what it is to be a champion, the sacrifices you have to make. Perhaps. But the sacrifices seem more like the whims of a capricious fate than something actively forgone. Peter Parker turning away from Mary-Jane at the end of Spider-Man, that's heroic. This? I don't know.

And have you noticed it's always the women who die? Boyfriends tend to survive in the Buffyverse. Sure, Angel and Spike were both killed, but they both came back. Girlfriends, however, have a much harder time; Jenny Calendar, Joyce (okay, marginal as a girlfriend, but still ...), Tara, Anya, all dead, all gone forever. Angel started off by killing a male character, Doyle, but since then it’s been the sacrifice of women again, with Darla and Lilah (who weren't exactly on the side of light themselves, but were involved with people who were), and now Cordy and Fred. What this means, I don't know, other than that the Buffyverse can't deal with functional adult relationships. But I wouldn't hold out much hope for Angel's new werewolf love interest. Nor, for that matter, would I bet on Buffy herself surviving to episode's end, should she ever return.

My friend Simon Hovell once said that up to the end of season 5 Buffy had been like Neighbours, full of bad things happening, but with it all working out in the end, but after that it was like EastEnders, an endless succession of unrelieved misery. Currently, Angel is like EastEnders directed by Ken Loach and with incidental music by Leonard Cohen. All the joy has been taken from it, and that's why I've stopped enjoying the show. No longer is triumph alternated with tragedy, or rather, where once there was personal triumph there is now only the abstract saving-the-world stuff to alleviate the misery. It's depressing, and, frankly, getting boring.

By killing two characters in such swift succession, Whedon has, for this viewer at least, massively overplayed his hand. It's almost as if he's taunting his audience. 'Like this character? Care about them? Well, they're dead. And look, I did it again!' Fair enough then, Joss, I won't care. I no longer wish to care about anyone else in the show, knowing that they have nothing to expect but frustration of their hopes, and that any one could be snatched away without notice. I got hooked on the Buffyverse because the writers had good stories to tell, not because they'd do pointlessly nasty things to characters just because they could.

I doubt the Warner Brothers executives were thinking creatively when they cancelled Angel. But, even if done for the wrong reasons, it's beginning to look to me like a mercy killing.

[In 2013, I am aware that Whedon made the change in Acker's character to allow the actress to show more of her range, but that doesn't, I feel, invalidate the points made above.]

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

New paper on

Here is a link to a paper I've just posted to, which I wrote for the now defunct Open University Course AA310 Film and Television History when I was taking the course as a student. 
It's all about invasion narratives in 1950s and 1960s TV SF. _

Sunday, August 18, 2013

New post on Swords, Sorcery, Sandals and Space

I've put a new post up on Swords, Sorcery, Sandals and Space, collecting a number of interesting things I've seen recently.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Writing Fantastic London: A reading list

Among many fantastic things I was involved with at the Nineworlds Geekfest last weekend, I led a workshop on "Writing Fantastic London", a mixture of me talking about key fantastic works about London, and how they use London, and giving people the chance to write their own stories about London. I'm not sure how well it worked, and in future I would certainly give more time for discussing stories written in the workshop. 

In any case, I thought I'd give you the list of key texts I passed out (revised to include some "OMG How did I forget that!" works).

Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol (1843)
Robert Louis Stevenson, The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886)
Bram Stoker, Dracula (1897)
H.G. Wells, The War of the Worlds (1898)
E. Nesbit, The Story of the Amulet (1906)
P.L. Travers, Mary Poppins (1934) and sequels
George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949)
John Wyndham, The Day of the Triffids (1951)
C.S. Lewis, The Magician’s Nephew (1955)
Elizabeth Beresford, The Wombles (1968) and sequels
Michael Moorcock, The Final Programme (1969), A Cure for Cancer (1971), The English Assassin (1972), The Condition of Muzak (1977)
Malcolm Hulke, Doctor Who and the Dinosaur Invasion (1976)
Peter Ackroyd, Hawksmoor (1985)
Iain Banks, Walking on Glass (1985)
Geoff Ryman, The Child Garden (1989)
Neil Gaiman, Neverwhere (1996)
J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Philospher’s Stone (1997) and sequels
Alan Moore & Kevin O’Neill, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (2000-)
Philip Reeve, Mortal Engines (2001) and sequels
Neal Stephenson, Quicksilver (2003), The Confusion (2004), The System of the World (2004)
Susanna Clarke, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell (2004)
Elizabeth Hand, Mortal Love (2004)
Mike Carey, The Devil You Know (2006) and sequels
China Miéville, Un Lun Dun (2007), Kraken (2010)
Kate Griffin, A Madness of Angels (2009) and sequels
Ben Aaronovitch, Rivers of London (2011), Moon Over Soho (2011), Whispers Under Ground (2012), Broken Homes (2013)
Paul Cornell, London Falling (2012)
Terry Pratchett, Dodger (2012)

The following is a reading list for a Summer School I teach for Middlesex University, with duplications with the list above taken out,  It was originally prepared by the person who taught the course before me, though I've tweaked it a bit.  This course is particularly slanted towards fantasy, whilst the list above includes sf as well.

Michael Moorcock, Warlord of the Air (1971)
Tim Powers, The Anubis Gates (1983)
Alan Moore & Eddie Campbell, From Hell (1989)
Neil Gaiman, et al., Sandman: The Doll's House (1991), "Men of Good Fortune"
China Miéville, King Rat (1998), Perdido Street Station (2000)
Terry Pratchett, The Truth (2000) (other novels featuring Ankh-Morpork are relevant)
Chris Wooding, The Haunting of Alaizabel Cray (2001)
Jonathan Stroud, The Bartimaeus Trilogy (three books: 2003-2010)
Ian R. MacLeod, The Light Ages (2003)
Charlie Fletcher, Stoneheart (2006), Ironhand (2007), Silvertongue (2008)
Marie Brennan, Midnight Never Come (2008)

The following suggestions were made by members of the audience (in addition to those that struck me as obvious omissions, which are in the list above):

Douglas Adams, So Long and Thanks For All the Fish (1984)
Felix J. Palma, The Map of Time (2008)
Mike Shevdon, Sixty-One Nails (2009) and sequels
Benedict Jacka, Fated (2012) and sequels

Here are some works in which one might research London, as all the writers above have:

Ken Garland, Mr. Beck’s Underground Map (1994)
Peter Ackroyd, London: The Biography (2001)
Robert Winder, Bloody Foreigners: the story of immigration to Britain (2005)
Jerry White, London in the Twentieth Century (2001), London in the Nineteenth Century (2007), London in the Eighteenth Century (2011)
Barry Miles, London Calling: A Countercultural History of London Since 1945 (2010)
Cathy Ross & John Clark, London: The Illustrated History (2008)

And finally, this website is still very much under construction, but it will be a great resource soon.

So, that should keep you all busy!  Feel free to add some further thoughts.

Friday, August 02, 2013

Lies, damned lies and casting rumours

There are two types of news story I automatically disbelieve unless they have some verifiable authority attached. One is football transfer rumours. Over the years I have come to conclude that most of these are concocted by sports journalists with column inches that must be filled, or agents eager to raise the profile of their clients.

The other, as you might guess from the title of this blog post, is Doctor Who rumours. I have seen so many rubbish rumours about the show over the years that I refuse to believe anything not officially announced by the BBC. Sometimes, that does mean I am dismissive of something that turns out to be true - I gave no credence at first to the casting of Billie Piper. But on the whole, I think I have a good hit-rate on this, and failed to be caught out by, for instance, the idea that the new Doctor would be announced at the Doctor Who prom.

So, we are in the midst of a flurry of rumours. The twelfth Doctor will be announced on Sunday. Who will it be?

The important point is - nobody knows. Aside from a small group of people sworn to secrecy on pain of losing their BBC Cardiff canteen privileges, nobody knows who has been cast. The journalists writing articles don't know. The punters placing bets don't know. The bookies don't know. So when someone says that Peter Capaldi is the bookies' favourite, this means nothing more than that some people have placed bets on Capaldi, because they like him or because they think he'd be good in the role, and other people have seen Capaldi going up in the rankings, thought 'oh, yes, I like him', and placed their own bets. It doesn't mean that Capaldi is any more likely to be cast than Peter O'Toole or Sooty. If he is cast, and I don't think he will be, it will be a mere coincidence that the bookies got it right.

What's a bit depressing about this is how little imagination gets displayed. Journalists and punters think of people they remember, people of whom the public are aware. So we get suggestions like Idris Elba. Now, I have no problem with a black Doctor - indeed, I think it's something that's overdue (though I'm not sure the people casting the role agree). And Elba is a fine actor. But I think the star of Luther and Pacific Rim has better things to do with his career than be the Doctor. And this is the thing with a lot of the people whose names have come up - they are generally in places in their careers where they don't need to be the Doctor. Most of these suggestions pay little attention to the sort of person who has been cast in the past. (Except the wish-fulfillment suggestions that an old Doctor will return to the role. I've been hearing these since a suggestion in the 1980s that Troughton was coming back. It wasn't true then, and it's blazingly unlikely now.)

Only twice, I'd argue, has an actor been cast as the Doctor who was bigger than the brand - when William Hartnell was cast for the show's launch in 1963, and when Eccleston was cast for the relaunch in 2005. Apart from that, Doctor Who has not been the next move for an actor who has already starred in a successful series. You could make an argument for McGann, but I'd argue his career had slipped somewhat from the heights of Withnail and I. And you could make a better argument for Tennant, but he didn't then have the public profile that Capaldi and Elba have now. [Edit: It has entirely correctly been pointed out to me that Davison was also pretty well known when cast.]

Virtually nobody had heard of Matt Smith when he was cast. His most prominent work before being cast as the Doctor was a supporting role in Ruby in the Smoke, and being part of an ensemble cast in Party Animals, a series that no-one watched and which no-one would now remember were it not for the presence in the cast of before-they-were-famous Smith, Andrea Riseborough and Andrew Buchan. So why not place a bet on James Bradshaw? Who? Exactly. James Bradshaw has been playing one-off character roles in film and television for fifteen years, and has shown recently that he has exactly the sort of eccentric intelligence the role requires in his performances as Max DeBryn in Endeavour. I'm not saying that he is going to be cast. But he'd be no more of a waste of money than Idris Elba.

Who do I think will be cast? I have no idea. I'd love it if John Hurt turned out to really be the next Doctor, especially if that meant we'd get a Doctor who was in control of the situation, rather than constantly improvising in the face of the next unanticipated development. But I don't think it will be. What I want is what I wanted last time - a middle-aged character actor who is not bigger than the show, but can make the role their own. But I suspect I will be surprised on Sunday night.

Friday, July 19, 2013

SFF Conference Round-up

One day I shall get round to writing actual original content for this blog, but for the moment, here's a link to a round-up after the conference I ran at the end of last/beginning of this month.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Some Roman movies

These were mostly watched in connection with the course I am teaching at Roehampton (see previous post). 

Gladiator (USA/UK, dir. Ridley Scott, wri. David Franzoni and John Logan and William Nicholson, 2000)

The movie that restarted the ancient epic genre (before Troy and Alexander killed it again).  It looks marvellous, but it's really quite hollow - there's little real substance to the movie, compared with epics of the 1950s.  Also, Hans Zimmer reuses some of the motifs from the battle scene in his subsequent scores for Pirates of the Carribean, which means that I can't watch this scene without expecting Jack Sparrow to appear.  The students seemed to like it.  (Also, the Russell Crowe/Ridley Scott commentary on the extended version is a bit too much of them trying to talk over each other.)

Carry On Cleo (USA/UK, dir. Gerald Thomas, wri. Talbot Rothwell, 1964)

The students enjoyed this as well, though they didn't understand all of it (they didn't know, for instance, that 'it always goes in the most interesting bits' is a joke about the unreliability of early television sets).  I think I've seen this a bit too often, as it no longer seems fresh, apart from at the best bits 'public oratory - it's an unspeakable business' (on the other hand, I can watch Carry On Up the Khyber over and over again and never tire of it).  I do still always notice something new each time I watch it, though - this time, it's the degree to which Kenneth Williams is channelling his Hancock persona - not as much as in Carry of Spying, but more than in any other Carry On he'd done.  Oh, and Joan Sims telling Kenneth Connor to piss off.

Cleopatra (USA, dir. Joseph L. Mankiewicz, wri. Joseph L. Mankiewicz and Ranald MacDougall and Sidney Buchman, 1963)

It was probably a mistake seeing this straight after Carry On Cleo - for a start, I can't hear Cleopatra talk about herself as the reincarnation of Isis without expecting someone to say 'Sweet Isis! They're lovely!'  But it is interesting to see how many scenes in the Carry On movie are direct parodies of the Hollywood version - as an example, Charles Hawtrey interpreting for the mute bodyguard is a parody of Rex Harrison interpreting the mute George Cole.  Cleopatra is a bit of an endurance test.  The first half benefits from a really good performance by Harrison - much better than in My Fair Lady - and the movie suffers after he is killed.  Taylor herself was a great actress, but not in this role.  She's beautiful, for certain, though I do wish that her costumes didn't scream 'Breasts!  Breasts!  Look at my breasts!'  And she does have one excellent moment, when she winks at Harrison after arriving in the maddest rag float ever, as if to say 'Don't worry, I know this is ridiculous, too.'

Caesar and Cleopatra (UK, dir. Gabriel Pascal, wri.: George Bernard Shaw, 1945)

I watched this at the Petrie Museum, with an excellent introduction by John J. Johnston, from which I learnt much.  The parallels with the 1963 movie are interesting.  Just as the actress perceived as the most beautiful woman in the world was cast in 1963, so Vivien Leigh, the most beautiful actress in Britain in the 1940s, takes the role here.  And just as the 1963 movie was an difficult project that got out of financial control, so too with this.  But what makes it different is that this is the Cleopatra movie which isn't about sex.  Caesar and Cleopatra aren't lovers, though everyone around them assumes they are - rather it is a paternal relationship.  Leigh wears beautiful outfits, that do display her figure, but aren't as overtly trying to seduce the viewer.  Also interesting is how stagy this movie looks - it resembles a sophisticated television production rather than a movie.

Fellini Satyricon (Italy, dir. Federico Fellini, wri. Federico Fellini & Bernardino Zapponi, 1969)

The students who saw this at the screening described it as the weirdest thing they had seen.  It's not quite the weirdest movie I've ever seen, I don't think, but it's close.  Fellini's movie is deliberately fragmentary, and a pretty clear rejection of the classical Hollywood narrative.  No other movie about ancient Rome tackles the subject in quite the same way.  But I do think that Fellini is a complete game-changer in terms of the depiction of the underclass of Rome on screen.  In many subsequent productions, such as Gladiator or HBO's Rome, the streets we see are Fellini's streets.  This movie also features a literal elephant in the room.

Sebastiane (UK, dir. Derek Jarman & Paul Humfress, wri. Derek Jarman & James Whaley, 1976)

Jarman also makes strange movies with meandering narrative threads, but this is fairly straightforward, at least in comparison with 1977's Jubilee.  It is, essentially, a delightful indulgence in the naked male body, and in men making love with each other.  Where previous Hollywood movies presented ancient Rome as a place of transgressive sex, and expected their audiences to voyeuristically watch and then disapprove, Jarman presents Rome as a place of transgressive sex and says 'Isn't it wonderful'.  There are, however, some slightly unsettling sadomasocistic overtones, and it's unclear if Jarman thinks that Sebastian should have just submitted to Severus' advances.  This is what he later said, but are we really supposed to sympathise with a man who tries to force himself on another man, and kills him when he is refused?  No still means no, even when said by one man to another.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Spartacus (USA, dir.: Stanley Kubrick, wri.: Dalton Trumbo, 1960)

I've just started teaching a course on Classics and Cinema for the University of Roehampton.  I'm enjoying it a lot.  I've decided to blog about the movies that we're examining in detail.  The first is the 1960 classic Spartacus.

I've written about Spartacus before.  I have a few comments as part of this article, which is an introductory piece, that began as a a session in a dayschool for an Open University Roman history course, and then became an article in a fanzine.  It's a very introductory piece, and draws heavily upon the works of the more sensible.  I've read and taught a lot more on movies and films since I first wrote this back in the early 2000s, and I should really completely rewrite it now, but for now, let it stand as it is.

Anyway, Spartacus.  One thing I noticed this time round was how long the movie is.  I mean, I always knew it was long, but there are sequences that more obviously could have been cut, such as a long montage where the slaves are crossing the Apennines, which gives the impression that they have actually crossed from one side of the United states to the other, rather than from one side of Italy to the other.  And yet, as the students noticed, the movie is incoherent, with characters appearing and disappearing almost out of nowhere.  Many relationships are underdeveloped, both the marital one between Spartacus and Varinia, and the pseudo-parental one between Spartacus and Tony Curtis' Antoninus, the latter of whom could have been cut out of the movie altogether.

I think that this derives from the number of people involved in the shaping of the movie.  Stanley Kubrick was the director, but he did not have complete control as he would with later movies.  Kirk Douglas, as Executive Producer, initiated the project, and in theory was in charge.  Dalton Trumbo wrote the screenplay, drawing upon Howard Fast's novel.  Fast had been the original screenwriter, and performed rewrites on Trumbo's script.  Anthony Mann had been the original director, shot the first ten minutes of the movies, and prepared a shooting script that was used for the movie's first act.  Peter Ustinov, Laurence Olivier and Charles Laughton were pressuring Trumbo to improve their parts, and/or writing their own dialogue (the last particularly in the case of Ustinov).  And Ed Muhl, the studio head at Universal, had final approval of the script and cut.  All these individuals were pulling in different directions - Fast and Trumbo, both left wing authors, nevertheless had slightly different views of Spartacus.  Douglas wanted to make him more heroic and develop the romantic side.  Muhl was desperately trying to remove any controversy from a movie that was already controversial because of the subject matter (a hero of the Left since the nineteenth century), and the choice of source novel and screenwriter (both Fast and Trumbo had gone to prison for refusing to co-operate with the House Un-American Activities Committee).  What results is a somewhat unsatisfactory compromise between all these approaches.  And also good evidence that the auteur theory is not wholly applicable to the Hollywood production system, though of course some auteurists have been determined to find a place for Spartacus in Kubrick's overall body of work.

The other thing I noticed was how really really good Laurence Olivier is.  He is the movie's villain, but he is not a cardboard villain.  He does genuinely seem to believe that what he wants to do is for the good of Rome, and not just for his own ambition.  When he talks of the order he will bring to Rome, he almost makes   Fascism seem attractive.

There is also one scene I hadn't appreciated properly.  Ustinov and Laughton have a scene together, written by Ustinov, where Laughton talks of how they are both corpulent individuals, and that the corpulent are easy-going - the nastiest tyrants are thin.  Underlying this scene, however, is the past careers of Ustinov and Laughton.  Both had played Nero, Laughton in The Sign of the Cross (1932) and Ustinov in Quo Vadis (1951).  And Nero, of course, was both the nastiest of tyrants and corpulent.  I'm sure Ustinov had that subtext in mind.