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.