Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Me in Journey Planet 30

There's a new Journey Planet out, edited by James Bacon and Christopher J Garcia, all about the First World War, I have a short piece in it, recommending a couple of books on the War.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Doctor Who, 'The Return of Doctor Mysterio'

Round my place, watching the Doctor Who Christmas Special and then saying 'Oh dear' has become as much a tradition of Christmas as sprouts and arguing over Trivial Pursuit. Truth to tell, last year I wasn't able to engage in that quite as much as previously. And this year, I have to say I did this even less. Hell, 'The Return of Doctor Mysterio' is okay - arguably Peter Capaldi's best special. But does that mean it's actually any good?

There are definitely good things about it. Capaldi's performance is becoming progressively more appealing. Steven Moffat's ability to write excellent dialogue, well-remembered from Coupling, but something that has got a bit obscured at times on Who, is particularly on display here - the words positively crackle at times, and some bits are laugh-out-loud funny. There are some great bits, especially the scene with Mr Huffle, played well by Capaldi and Charity Wakefield. Matt Lucas, despite essentially portraying Matt Lucas, works quite well as a foil for the Doctor, loosened from the shackles of Clara Oswald - and also demonstrates that the Doctor did care about the fate of those cannibalized into the Hydroflax (one assumes he restored Ramone as well). It will be nice to see more of him, though one assumes that he will depart fairly soon after the arrival of new female companion Bill (who seems very much in the mould of RTD companions such as Rose Tyler and Donna Noble rather than that of Amy Pond or Clara). And 'The Return of Doctor Mysterio' is certainly a story that's not opaque to anyone who hasn't seen the last three years of the show, thus enabling it to act as an entry point for new viewers.

And yet. And yet, at the risk of sounding like a grinch in the face of good reviews in the press and a Facebook feed full of friends saying how much they enjoyed this, concerns remain. Concerns that the alien invasion plot, part Spearhead from Space, part 'Partners in Crime' and part Independence Day, is a bit hackneyed, really. Concerns about the callous way the Doctor doesn't even attempt to save Brock, or feel bad about not being able to do so. Concerns that there are good ideas here, but they're often poorly executed. That things happen solely for a quick effect (e.g. Grant calling someone he's known since childhood by her married name, for no other reason than to surprise the audience once we see who she is; and why does the Ghost need to take the picnic basket into the stratosphere when it's destine for no further away than the roof of the building he lives in?). That the central romance is a bit stalkery, in the way of all good Hollywood romances. That even by the 1960s superhero stories had mostly given up pretending that you can bring a spaceship to an instantaneous stop without turning it and its contents to mush. That this sort of playful but respectful updating of the superhero genre is better done in the Christopher Reeve Superman movies (to which 'The Return of Doctor Mysterio' plays explicit homage) or, more recently, in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

And is just okay good enough anyway? Aside from the Doctor's cameo in Class, this is the first Doctor Who in over a year. It really needs to come back firing on all cylinders. There are hints that there is a growing faction within the BBC that, as in the 1980s, sees Doctor Who as something forced upon them rather than something that they want to make. Depending on which rumours you believe, these forces may be demanding that Capaldi goes after the next series. As it happens, I expect Capaldi to go anyway* - there are precedents for coinciding a new producer with a new Doctor - not just Moffat and Matt Smith, but (more-or-less) Barrie Letts and Jon Pertwee, and Philip Hinchcliffe and Tom Baker. In any case, by the end of 2017 Capaldi will have done three series over four years, the same period in the role as David Tennant or Matt Smith. Perhaps firmer evidence for internal BBC hostility, if still anecdotal, is that I don't recall seeing a single trailer for 'The Return of Doctor Mysterio', whereas trailers for Sherlock are inescapable. In that context, Doctor Who really needs to assert its place in television's schedules, and I'm not sure 'The Return of Doctor Mysterio' does that.

So, the best special of the Moffat era, probably. But I can't see 'The Return of Doctor Mysterio' carving out a place for itself amongst the greats of the show.

(For a far more sympathetic response to the episode, read Matthew Kilburn here.)

* But then I never expected him to be cast in the first place, so what do I know?

Monday, December 26, 2016

Doctor Who, 'The Husbands of River Song'

[This is another old Doctor Who Christmas special review. It includes spoilers.]

Though I haven't talked much about it of late, it's no particular secret amongst my friends that I am not a great fan of Steven Moffat's Doctor Who, especially not the last few years. I didn't really care for the first Peter Capaldi series, and whilst the second has been better, I still wouldn't follow some of my friends in declaring it the best series since Who returned. It's certainly the best series involving Clara, but that's quite a low bar.

On the positive side, Capaldi is settling into the role quite nicely, in contrast to the first series, where he was as patronising as Jon Pertwee's Doctor and as manipulative as Sylvester McCoy's, but lacked the charm of either. And the Doctor and Clara Oswald are at least no longer lying to each other, which is pleasing. But the series veered from moments that were actually quite clever (some of the stuff with Davros, and the misdirection achieved through the use of the word 'me') to moments that were so arch that you just wanted to slap everyone involved (e.g. every moment that involved a guitar). And Moffat's writing has become the equivalent of Murray Gold's music - it beats you around the head with the emotion that you are supposed to be feeling, and just in case you didn't get the message, it does it again. (The most egregious example of this is the Eternal Death Scene of Clara Oswald.)

Nor have I been much of a fan of the Christmas specials. In contrast to the 1970s, when BBC Christmas specials meant pulling out all the stops and topping anything that had been done in the rest of the year, nowadays the idea seems to be that, as the audience will be half-cut and sleeping off Christmas dinner, it isn't necessary to try too hard. This has resulted in a number of 'specials' that have been incredibly lazy ('The Doctor, The Widow and the Wardrobe'; see The Terrible Zodin, issue 13, pp. 80-82), or at worst utterly incoherent ('The Time of the Doctor').

So I approached 'The Husbands of River Song' with some trepidation; my inner response to Moffat's question 'what could be more special than the return of Alex Kingston as Professor River Song?' was 'hang on, I'll get you a list.' But actually, there were moments in this where I actually smiled, and was enjoying the interplay between Capaldi and Alex Kingston. There were also moments when I was thinking "oh, get on with it", of course. And it's quite true, as Matthew Kilburn notes, that this episode had a lighter tone that was out of kilter with the rest of this season. As I only just finished catching up with the previous episodes just before Christmas, this tonal shift towards comedy, emphasized by the casting (and slight wasting) of comic actors, was particularly notable. But overall, this was okay. I'm certainly prepared to agree with those who say that it was the best Christmas special for a while - though that is a pretty low bar. And however much I enjoyed it, there is still a nagging feeling that this is a series preoccupied by glitz and flash over story, presided over by a showrunner running out of ideas, who really ought to move on.

Doctor Who, 'The Time of the Doctor'

[This is an old review from 2013 from another platform that I'm putting up here to provide some background to my forthcoming review of 'The Return of Doctor Mysterio'. You will see my prediction at the end turned out to be correct. Oh, and spoilers, of course.]

Though I didn't blog about it at the time, I really enjoyed 'The Day of the Doctor', the Doctor Who 50th anniversary special. It was far from flawless, but it pulled me in, and worked its emotional magic. However, I also remembered that most of the Steven Moffat Christmas specials had been pretty un-special (you can read what I thought of the 2011 one in The Terrible Zodin, issue 13, pp. 80-82), so I wasn't holding out any hopes for this one. I was right to take that position, for 'The Time of the Doctor' vies with 'Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS' for being the worst Doctor Who of the Moffat era.

Penny Goodman  sums up the problem well. She writes:
Moffat pretty much just put up on screen all the notes he's been keeping about how the time crack, the Silence, the question hiding in plain sight, Trenzalore and the Lore of the Twelve Regenerations should be resolved, without troubling to knit them into a coherent story or to give them any emotional weight.
Exactly. This was presumably intended by Moffat to be the great culmination of the arcs he has been developing ever since 'The Eleventh Hour'; instead, it seems like he's gathered together a series of plot ideas he'd got bored with and not finished off properly, and resolved them all in such a way that the viewer is left thinking 'is that all there is to the Silence/TARDIS destroying the universe/crack in time/etc.?' All this in what is not so much a story as a series of vignettes knotted together, that leave one constantly asking 'What's going on? Who are they? Why are people doing this?' (As an aside, I note that Moffat's previous Christmas specials relied on other people's stories - Charles Dickens, C.S. Lewis, and the original Patrick Troughton Yeti tales. Here it's all Moffat, and there isn't anything there.)

It may be that Moffat was instructed to resolve a load of hanging plot threads. But I'd argue that if that was part of the problem, then he brought that on himself through leaving big plot threads unresolved. The big question at the end of Series 5 was who blew up the TARDIS - this gets quickly forgotten in Series 6, as we switch to the whole Impossible Astronaut story. And did we ever actually find out why Amy Pond can't remember the Daleks?

I think this is actually the downside of the legacy of Joss Whedon. Few people have been as good as him at balancing the arc plot and standalone episodes - yet everyone feels compelled to try.

The Matt Smith regeneration scene also seemed like an anti-climax. Moffat seemed to be trying for the emotional weight of the David Tennant regeneration (some aspects of which I didn't like), but falls well short. Oh, and the joke about the Doctor and Clara Oswald being naked is as ill-judged and unnecessary as the fellatio gag in 'Love and Monsters'.

I taught a 1968 Who story as part of my course on 'London in the Literature of the Fantastic' at the University of Notre Dame this past semester, and that sparked a very interesting conversation with those students who were fans of modern Who about the lack of entry points these days, episodes you can tell people to watch without having to say 'Well, to understand this episode, you need to know this, this and this ...' A Christmas special, which will get viewers other episodes won't get,  should be an entry point - instead, this episode was incomprehensible to anyone who hasn't seen every episode of the last four years (I have, and I still didn't know what was happening half the time).

The problem remains, I think, that Moffat is over-committed. 'The Day of the Doctor' is really good. I have little doubt that the same will be true of the first episode of Season 3 of Sherlock. But in between, he seems to have decided 'oh, this'll do' for Christmas, and it really won't. I think the time has come for Moffat to move on from Who, and hope he will by the end of the next Series. But we'll probably get Chris Chibnall instead ... Chibnall's a bit variable. The Chibnall responsible for Broadchurch might do an interesting job - that who made Torchwood or Camelot can please go away.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

(The Legend of) Hercules (USA, dir. Renny Harlin, scr. Sean Hood and Daniel Giat, 2014)

Renny Harlin once made a good movie that I enjoyed. It's called The Long Kiss Goodnight, and yes, it's preposterous, and you do wonder why, given that he was married to Geena Davis at the time, he needs to contrive so many opportunities for her to be in her underwear, but it's a movie I always enjoy watching when it comes on telly, as it regularly does. Until The Legend of Hercules, I hadn't seen anything he's made since, and judging by his regular nominations for Golden Raspberries, I haven't missed anything.

The Legend of Hercules, renamed from Hercules to avoid confusion with another (and rather better) 2014 Hercules movie,* doesn't change my impression of Harlin's work in the slightest. It's poorly written, with plot threads discarded as soon as they are of no further interest, poorly directed, and poorly acted, with the improbably named Kellan Lutz, and his improbable pectorals, in the role of Hercules. And there's a Nemean Lion which is so poor it could hardly be worse had they got ventriloquist's dummy Lenny the Lion to do it.

The movie is a hodge-podge of bits taken from other, more accomplished movies. 300, of course, is referenced a lot, and there are a number of the sort of scenes that 300 made a norm, and which are all over Starz' Spartacus series, where exteriors in antiquity are apparently not convincing unless they are filmed in a studio. There's a lot of Gladiator, in scenes anachronistically set in the arena. But there's also nods towards Saving Private Ryan, Troy, Clash of the Titans - there's even a snowy funeral so reminiscent of Anthony Mann's Fall of the Roman Empire that it's hard to believe it's not deliberate, even though the reference would mean little to Harlin's main audience. Towards the end, there's a lengthy section that imitates (not too surprisingly) Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, before Hercules pulls down pillars to which he has been chained, a scene that ultimately goes back to the story of Samson, but which is found in the 1958 Hercules. And then the story suddenly goes all Thor for no readily apparent reason.

The Legend of Hercules is pretty free with its use of mythological characters (not necessarily a point against it); Iphicles and Amphitryon, Hercules' brother and father, are not particularly evil in the existing sources, but the movie needs them to be for the clichéd story it has chosen to tell. Hebe, the goddess who marries Hercules when he is admitted into the ranks of the immortals, here becomes the mortal love interest of the young son of Zeus. Other ancient Greek names are randomly employed - Iolaus, who mythographers will recognise as Hercules' nephew, and fans of The Legendary Journeys know as his best mate, appears as the child of Hercules' ally Sotiris. And there are even less important characters called Agamemnon and Creon.

The movie is also a good illustration of Gideon's Nisbet's argument that Hollywood often has difficultly presenting Greece on screen, because it ends up looking too much like Rome. This emerges not only in the obvious moments such as the arena sequences, where Kenneth Cranham's Lucius is done up in a shabby toga, but also in the battle scenes, where troops march complete with very Roman looking banners. The fact that a battlefield tactic is described as 'testudo' just demonstrates how little anyone involved cares about any distinction between Greece and Rome.

The movie almost does something interesting at the end. Hera has foreshadowed that peace does not lie in Hercules' future, and Hebe stabs herself rather than be used as a hostage by Iphicles, but then ... she doesn't die. Instead, in a twist that bears all the hallmarks of a post-test screening reshoot, Hercules gets the happy-ever-after ending that Hera said he would be denied, and precludes any sequels. They may already have realised that wouldn't be an issue.

* Indeed, when shown on Channel 5, where I saw it, the title had reverted to Hercules.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

UCL and King's Classical Plays, 2016

February, as ever, saw the UCL Classics Play and the King's Greek Play. I actually haven't written about these for five years, partly because I haven't always got around to going, partly because I haven't found the time to write them up properly. This has ill-served some productions, such as UCL's splendid 2013 version of Trojan Women, which featured Lucy Chappell giving the best performance in the role of Andromache I've seen since Vanessa Redgrave in Michael Cacoyannis' movie version (Chappell is now, unsurprisingly, a professional actress, who appeared in The Theory of Everything). On the other hand, there were times in the past when I've been quite scathing, so perhaps some productions are glad of my silence.

But that is past - how about this year?

UCL bravely chose to break away from the usual fare of Euripides, Aristophanes and Aeschylus (it's been sixteen years since they last tackled Sophocles), and instead presented Menander's Dyskolos (The Misanthrope), about the only one of that playwright's texts in a good enough condition to stage. (Though there are lacunae, and rightly, this production made jokes about them.) The production had been hit by a number of problems, largely arising out of the prolonged closure of the Bloomsbury Theatre, which resulted in the production having to be restricted to just two performances.

But I can report that they did a pretty good job. A lot of this is down to a rather fine comic performance by Dominic Hauschild in the titular role of Knemon, the miserable misanthropic father. The production also innovated by casting women in a lot of the roles, such as the cook, and various other servants (i.e. slaves). It wasn't the best UCL production ever, but it was okay, and I'm prepared to take that for an innovative choice of text.

King's chose a less unusual play, Euripides' Alkestis. Edith Hall has some interesting things to say about the play, and how Admetus is rather unpleasant because of the speed with which he abandons his promise to dead wife not to marry again, as he is ignorant of the fact that his new wife is his old wife rescued from Death. In Admetus' defence, he is bullied into doing this by Heracles. Moreover, to a fifth century audience, this moment represents the restoration of normality, as a widower would be expected to remarry soon.

As for the production - well, my heart did sink a bit when I read two separate synopses in the programme book, one placing the play in ancient Pherae, and the other in 1957 London. But in the end, this blending of ancient and modern was not particularly intrusive, as the production was tied to Euripides' original text. In the end it just looked like a fairly standard modern dress production, with some nice ideas. For instance, Apollo was played by a woman, and in the version I saw, when Admetus' bride was brought back, it is in fact Apollo. Best of these was perhaps how the Chorus was handled. Instead of having them chant the lines, as would normally be the case, instead the Chorus danced, while Professor Michael Silk read the lines over the PA. It was an innovative approach. I'm not entirely sure it worked, and it did make the play seem very episodic as the stage went to black at the beginning and end of each choral scene. But King's deserves praise for trying. There was also some interesting use of music.

The performances ran the usual gamut from confident projection (Oliver de Montfalcon is pretty good as Admetus) to quiet monotone. And there was the usual problem with King's productions where the surtitles got out of sync with what was being said on stage, at one point quite badly.

I would say that while neither production massively impressed me this year, neither was really bad. And that's an okay result.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Hail Caesar! (USA/UK, Joel and Ethan Coen, 2016)

There's a truism about movies that attempt to recreate the past that is well-known to scholars of ancient reception - that no matter how hard they try to be 'accurate', these movies always give away the time in which they were actually made. The art deco Egypt of Cecil B. DeMille's Cleopatra is self-evidently a product of the 1930s, whilst Joseph L. Mankiewicz's movie of the same title can only date to the 1960s. So it is, if in a different manner, with Joel and Ethan Coen's attempt to recreate the Hollywood of 1951. It opens with what is supposedly footage from a 1951 Biblical/Roman epic, the eponymous Hail, Caesar!, subtitled in best Ben-Hur fashion, 'A Tale of the Christ'. But it just doesn't look quite right. These are not Mervyn LeRoy or William Wyler shots from the 1950s - they are Coen Brothers/Roger Deakin shots from 2016, and they just betray themselves, for all that they've got some things, such as the colour, exactly right.

Hail, Caesar! is an enjoyable movie - fun, and funny. It's very much a collection of episodes rather than a coherent story, but the best of the episodes are well worth it. Best of all is Channing Tatum's dance number - Tatum can't quite carry off the Gene Kelly thing of being a song-and-dance man whilst exuding heteronormative masculinity, but he does his best. There's also a great scene where Hail, Caesar!, the movie within the movie. is checked for any potential offensive content with four religious leaders who can't agree.

This is a movie very much of cameos. No-one apart from Josh Brolin as central fixer Eddie Mannix or George Clooney's idiot actor Baird Whitlock are on screen for very long. Scarlett Johannsen as out-of-control starlet DeeAnna Moran has a particularly small role considering how much she's in the movie's publicity - she only has two short scenes. The same is true of Ralph Fiennes as director Laurence Laurentz, finally finding his comedy persona, and Tilda Swinton as twin gossip columnists Thora and Thessaly Thacker. Blink, and you will miss Frances McDormand as editor C.C. Calhoun, Dolph Lundgren as a Russian submarine commander, Christopher Lambert as a Scandinavian director, and a heavily made-up John Bluthal as real-life Marxist philosopher Herbert Marcuse.

Surprisingly for a Coen Brothers movie, there appears to be very little subtext here. This is not as weighty a movie as No Country For Old Men or Fargo, nor does it even have the substance of relatively frothy movies such as Raising Arizona or O Brother Where Art Thou? But it's still worth seeing. It also makes an interesting pair with this year's Trumbo, since where Trumbo lionizes the Communist-leaning screenwriters of the 1950s, Hail, Caesar! gives them a good kicking. 

The Egyptian (USA, Michael Curtiz, 1954)

I saw this much earlier in the year through the graces of the Petrie Museum Film Club, with an introduction by the estimable John J. Johnston. It's a movie that deals with antiquity, rather than specifically Classical antiquity, though there is a very brief excursion to Minoan Crete. (Or is it Mycenaean Greece? It's not quite clear.)

The Egyptian, based on a 1945 novel by Finnish author Mika Waltari, is something of an overlooked oddity. Director Michael Curtiz, most famous for Casablanca, evidently did not value The Egyptian highly, to the point of refusing to co-operate with a retrospective at the British Film Institute unless this movie was removed from the programme. A whole range of actors rejected roles in the movie. The lead role was at one point offered to Marlon Brando, who had by this point demonstrated that he could do antiquity through his performance in Joseph Mackiewicz's Julius Caesar (1953), but he turned it down. Other people supposedly in the line for major roles were Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas, Dirk Bogarde, and more. In the event, the leads are played by the largely unknown Edward Purdom as Sinuhe, the eponymous Egyptian, with Michael Wilding as the Pharaoh Akhenaten, and Victor Mature, with plenty of experience in epics, as Horemheb, Sinuhe's friend and the man who will overthrow the Pharaoh. Peter Ustinov plays the slave Kaptah, faithful companion to Sinhue, and female support comes from Jean Simmons as love interest Merit, Gene Tierney as Akhenaton's sister Beketaten, and Bella Darvi as the courtesan Nefer.

Nobody, to be honest, is terribly good here. Ustinov looks unhappy. Tierney, essentially playing a version of the manipulative femme fatale that she had made her trademark, is out of place. Only Mature and Simmons look like they are actually in roles that they can understand, and Simmons is not in the movie very much. Darvi, who got the role ahead of Marilyn Monroe because she was sleeping with the producer, is mostly there to titillate through near-translucent dresses. Purdom shows that he learnt his craft at the hands of Laurence Olivier by essentially doing an Olivier impersonation throughout. And there's a bizarre cameo by John Carradine as a grave robber. It's cruel, but not entirely unfair, to say that the best performance is actually given by a donkey halfway through the movie.

Part of the problem seems to be that the actors' performances don't really match other aspects of the movie. It's shot on an epic scale (including some scenes that look like they've been filmed in John Ford's beloved Monument Valley). But the performances seem on a much smaller scale, as if they are in a filmed play such as Caesar and Cleopatra.

If the movie is of interest, it is for two points. The first is the semi-tragic ending - Sinuhe dies having lost the love of his life in a religious massacre, in exile and separated from his son. The movie sets up this end right at the beginning, and to its credit, doesn't try to cheat the viewer.

The other interesting aspect is the way in which it demonstrates that almost all epics of the 1950s are essentially Biblical epics, even when they can't possibly be. So epics such as The Rope and Ben-Hur had the life of Christ at their core, or at least not far from the centre, Quo Vadis dealt with the early Christian Church, and movies such as The Ten Commandments and Solomon and Sheba explored the Old Testament. (Indeed, it might be argued that when ancient epics distanced themselves from the Bible and Christianity, with Cleopatra and The Fall of the Roman Empire, they were met with much less successful box office returns.)

It's now generally considered that there's nothing obviously Judaeo-Christian about the events of the reign of Akhenaten. However, in the nineteenth century, the religion of the Aten was seen as a monotheistic precursor of Christianity. The movie chooses to hammer through that connection. The worshippers of the Sun are presented as proto-Christians, dressed in white, desiring only peace, and willing to die for their beliefs. Akhenaten himself becomes, like Spartacus in Kubrick's movie six years later, a pseudo-Christ, and the idea that all these events merely foreshadow the life of Jesus is made explicit in the final caption. Towards the end of the movie Sinuhe delivers a defiant speech to Horemheb, now Pharaoh, one that is very similar to the speech delivered by Richard Burton's Marcellus Gallio to the emperor Caligula in The Robe.

Finally, it is worth mentioning how the movie reflects the essential racism of Hollywood in the 1950s. All of the characters who get to speak are white. There are black people in this movie, but they are all, without exception, slaves or servants of some description.

None of this makes The Egyptian a particularly good movie, though it does make it an interesting one.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

New post on my OU Blog

All Associate Lecturers (and indeed students) at the Open University are provided with a blog for their use. Most don't use it, so do a lot. I occasionally use it for something particularly pedagogical, and so I just have, looking at what postgrads might think about when they approach theories and methods for their work.

Sunday, October 09, 2016

Women's Classical Committee: Classics and Feminist Pedagogy - Practical Tips for Teaching

At the end of July I was privileged to go to the Women's Classical Committee's event 'Classics and Feminist Pedagogy - Practical Tips for Teaching'. This was aimed primarily at postgrads and early career researchers, but fortunately there was a space for me. Why did I go? Lots of reasons. For a start, I've long believed that one is never too old to learn new stuff, and how to do things better. If anything, as I've got older I've become more receptive to learning about pedagogy - the arrogant twenty-something me, deeply suspicious about anything that looked like theory, was far more resistant. (Though I have still had bad experiences with pedagogical texts and events that I have felt ended up teaching me nothing about how to be a good teacher.) And I have always supported feminist causes (like so many things in my life, I blame Doctor Who).* So when Liz Gloyn first mentioned the idea of the UK Women's Classical Committee to me, I was enthusiastic, and I am delighted that it has become an actual thing that does things (as Liz would say). All of this means that feminist pedagogy ticks many of my academic boxes. Feminist pedagogy must inherently be inclusive pedagogy, which means it can't just be for women (and a number of the issues that face young female scholars, such as insecurity of position, are also issues that I've faced throughout my career). Moreover, I have, through my association with Nine Worlds, become much more concerned of late about inclusivity.

What follows is not a coherent report on the event. Other people will no doubt write those soon, and in the meantime there are a couple of Storifys. What I want to do here is explore a few issues that particularly connected with me.

Liz opened proceedings with a session on 'What is Feminist Pedagogy and What does it mean for Classics and Ancient History?', drawing upon a lot of work that's previously been done in the US in the area of feminist pedagogy and its use in Classical Studies. I took a lot away from this, most of all the clear advantages of the 'Solidarity Model' of syllabus design, which fully engages with a number of different perspectives, rather than the 'Tourist Model' or the 'Explorer Model', both of which other in various ways the marginalized and powerless.

Like a lot of what I read or here about best practice, Liz's talk made me consider my own practice and consider the many ways in which my teaching falls down, including spending too much time delivering lectures, rather than trying to involve the students in a more collaborative approach. Partly this is due to my unwillingness to venture outside my own comfort zone, but partly it is due to lack of time. Rethinking how one does a module requires a bit of space to sit back and mull on how to go about doing this. Moreover, the demands of my current work patterns, where I have three separate employers, for all of whom I teach in quite different modes, mean that time for sitting back and thinking about approaches is a luxury I often don't have. But that, Liz argues, is alright - she suggests that doing things little bits at a time is fine. Nevertheless, I must do better.

Along the way, Liz talked about the difference between teacher-centred learning and student-centred learning, and her preference for subject-centred learning, a strategy that makes the learning experience a collaborative effort between students and teacher. It's a model I've been exposed to before through stuff that Liz has written, and one that very much appeals to me. But in one of the discussion conversations afterwards, Liz said to me, 'Oh, you don't tell the students that you're taking a subject-centred approach." The thing is, I have told students this, explicitly. Admittedly, I've only done it with Open University Students, but nevertheless, I'm not sure why it's a bad thing to do so - shouldn't one be upfront about taking such an approach if the aim is to empower students? I'm sure Liz will respond on this point, and I look forward to seeing that response.

The second paper I want to talk about was my Roehampton colleague Fiona McHardy talking about teaching sensitive subjects, on the back of some research she and another Roehampton colleague, Susan Deacy (present in the audience), have been conducting (perhaps best read about in this article from Cloelia). There was a lot of useful information in her presentation - fortunately Ellie Mackin took photographs of the most bibliographic slides and put them on Twitter (e.g. this one and this one).

The most interesting part of this was the discussion of trigger warnings. My own view on trigger warnings is that while they are often presented as censorious attempts to shut down debate, I've never seen them as barring study of anything, merely ensuring that students are properly prepared for material that is problematic and potentially upsetting. If anything, this helps them engage with the material more effectively. I've read too much commentary on trigger warnings that starts from a position that students who are concerned about these issues don't really have a valid viewpoint, and they should, essentially, 'man up' and get over anything potentially traumatic. To me, that lacks respects for students, dismissing those who are actually prepared to talk about the texts, only outside the parameters that the academic has set. There's no attempt here to empathise with students whose experiences and backgrounds may differ greatly from that of the teacher. In their worst manifestations, such attacks on warnings adopt the rhetoric of the bully - life is harsh, so you have to put up with my being harsh. Sorry, but that isn't an excuse. Nor does 'never mind the creepiness of Ovid, feel the beauty of the poetry' pass muster. That doesn't mean you can't feel the beauty of the poetry; but you have to acknowledge the other stuff.

However, what I have now been persuaded of is that the rhetoric around trigger warnings has become so overheated that using the term is counter-productive. To turn to Liz Gloyn again, she has argued for the use of 'content notes' (in the blog post she talks about 'content warnings' but I think she would now prefer 'content notes'). Essentially, this seems to have exactly the same effect as I would want a trigger warning to have, without the other stuff. I shall be trying to adopt that strategy.

The final thing that particularly made me think about my practice was my Open University colleague Helen King's talk. But the issues that raised with me are of such a kind that whilst I felt comfortable discussing them in the event, and afterwards with individuals, I don't feel comfortable discussing them in a public forum such as this. Ask me in a conference bar some time... I will say that I was sufficiently stimulated, and there were so many thoughts rushing around my head, that I found it harder to concentrate on the rest of the day, for which I apologise to the speakers concerned.

Overall though, this was a great and productive event, and I hope for more such.

* I once wrote a fanzine article about the influence of Doctor Who in forming my feminism. I'll not bore you with it now, but I might dig it out at some point in the future.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Roehampton Classical Student Research: A Celebration. Event Report.

Mike Edwards, not me, introducing the event.
CUCD Bulletin has just published a report I wrote up of a student research event at Roehampton, which we've published as a possible example of best practice. Of course, I have immediately thought of the thing I should have added but didn't, which is that if anyone has examples of similar practice, they should let us know!

Anyway, the report is here.

Monday, August 29, 2016

Urgent call for paper on Star Wars and Classics

Classicists (and possibly SF people around Canterbury): I am putting together a proposal for a Star Wars and Classical Antiquity panel for the Classical Association in April (, and have just had a speaker drop out. Would anyone like to be part of this? If so, please send me ( a 200-word abstract by close of play tomorrow (30 August), as the deadline for submitting panels is 31 August. Please note speakers must register for the conference, and I have no funding to support attendance.

ETA: Solved now.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

My Mancunicon Schedule

It's the British National Science Fiction Convention coming up this weekend, and I'll be doing some stuff at it. (Note that Mancunicon memberships are now closed, so if you're not a member you won't be able to attend any of this.)

This lecture focuses on how Victorian cultural critic John Ruskin uses the making and wearing of textiles to discuss political economy and to inspire change. It pays particular attention to craft and making, and the way we make and define ourselves through the clothing we wear.

A lecture sponsored by the BSFA.

[I shall be introducing and chairing this - the last time I'll do this for a BSFA Lecture]

1980s Trailblazing Comics

Sunday 11:30 - 12:30, Room 6 (Hilton Deansgate)
The panel discuss lesser known comics and creators from the 1980s that paved the way for the big names that came later.
Glyn Morgan (M), Tony Keen, Eric Steele, Karen Brenchley

[I will be trying to talk about comics other than Watchmen and Dark Knight.]

Science Fiction Criticism - Mini-Masterclass 1

Sunday 19:00 - 20:00, Room 10 (Hilton Deansgate)
Every Summer the Science Fiction Foundation holds a Masterclass in Science Fiction Criticism with world-renowned critics, academics and authors. This session provides a taster. Participants are required to sign up in advance (at Ops)  and should read the short story assigned for the session. There is a limit of ten participants.
Kari Sperring will lead a discussion of Liz Williams, "The Banquet of the Lords of Light"

Science Fiction Criticism - Mini-Masterclass 2

Monday 11:30 - 12:30, Room 10 (Hilton Deansgate)
Every Summer the Science Fiction Foundation holds a Masterclass in Science Fiction Criticism with world-renowned critics, academics and authors. This session provides a taster. Participants are required to sign up in advance (at Ops) and should read the short story assigned for the session. There is a limit of ten participants.
Andrew M Butler will lead a discussion of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, "If I were a man".

[I'm facilitating both of these. Participants are limited to ten each, and will need to sign up in Ops.]

Thursday, February 04, 2016

Dragon Blade (China & Hong Kong, dir. & scr.: Daniel Lee, 2015)

Dragon Blade, an epic tale of Chinese and Romans on the Silk Road, has been an enormous hit in China. In the UK, it's come out with little in the way of publicity, in a very limited cinema release, and been largely ignored by any critic who isn't Mark Kermode. Sure enough, when I went to see it, I was the only person in the cinema. Which is a shame, because whilst being utter, utter nonsense, it's actually rather fabulously enjoyable, if you like Jackie Chan movies and/or wuxia, Chinese historical martial arts epics. Which I do.

Jackie Chan is Huo An, head of the Silk Road Protection Squad, a sort of Han Dynasty UN peacekeeping force. After an encounter with a Hunnish force in which he accidentally ends up married to Lin Peng's Cold Moon (that's her character's name), which is awkward as he is already married, he and his team are framed for smuggling and condemned with other prisoners to rebuild the destroyed city of Wild Geese Gate, on the western edges of China. Then, out of the mist, comes a Roman legion led by John Cusack's Lucius, fleeing Tiberius Crassus (Adrien Brody), with Tiberius' young nephew Publius in tow.

Let's get this clear - though the movie is heavily indebted to Gladiator in the way it represents Romans, for some of its shots, and for elements of its plot structure (and has one obvious steal from the third Lord of the Rings movie), this is not a Hollywood East-meets-West film such as Shanghai Noon or Rush Hour. It is very much a wuxia epic, and is steeped in the grammar of Chinese, rather than Western, cinema. This particularly shows through in the the way it is very unsentimental about its cast, a feature of the genre I had forgotten. Very few named individuals are still standing at the end, and there are at least two things that happen to major characters here that I just can't imagine taking place in a Hollywood movie.

Historically, of course, the movie is complete rubbish. It begins with a series of captions that places the action in the context of Marcus Licinius Crassus' disastrous Parthian expedition of 55-53 BC (a prologue that featured modern archaeologists finding a Roman city on the Silk Road has been cut for the UK release), and claims to be inspired by true events - but the inspiration is clearly very loose. The mise-en-scène is that of the Roman Empire rather than the Republic - one of the interesting things about this movie is seeing how Chinese cinema represents Romans, their cities and their armour, which is not quite how Hollywood does it. And there's even a moral, which is that all ethnic communities of China are capable of working together, and can achieve great things when they do, a message bound to go down well in Beijing. (It is to be noted that everyone speaks in their own native dialect, except the Romans, who speak English, though they do sing Latin.)

There are some ... interesting performances by the western actors involved. Adrien Brody chews the scenery like it's coated in addictive substances. And then there's John Cusack. Cusack is one of my favourite Hollywood actors, and he's made a number of great movies - Grosse Pointe Blank and High Fidelity leap to mind. This, however, is not his finest hour, and he seems thoroughly miscast. I can only assume that he is a massive fan of Jackie Chan and really wanted to be in one of his movies.

And absolutely this is a Chan vehicle, and full of all the sort of things that one has come to expect from Chan's Chinese movies - much martial arts, quite a lot of humour, some tragedy and a story that does make you care about the fates of the main characters. It's not as good a Chan movie as, say, Who Am I? Nor is it anything like as good a historical epic as Zhang Yimou's Hero, and bears no comparison to the newly-released elegaic, atmospheric, and partly plot-free The Assassin. But I was smiling all the way through Dragon Blade. I mean, how can you not like a movie in which an Indian cavalry force attacks to the sound of massed dutars? Catch it on DVD (where perhaps the prologue will be restored) or Video On Demand, if you can.

Friday, January 01, 2016

The democratization of Classics: an incomplete process

Happy New Year, readers!

There's an article by Daisy Dunn in today's New Statesman, 'Revenge of the Greats'. Overall it's a reasonable summary of the state of play in the study of Classics. The summary for the article includes a question, "would we understand the world better if we read and studied classics?", which is thankfully not really raised by the article (I suspect the hand of a sub-editor). It's a question that implies that we should be go back to the years of compulsory Latin, which in my view would simply recreate the problems that have dogged the subject since the 1960s. Classics should be available for those who want it, not imposed upon those who don't.

The article does include the following section:

Anyone who wants to go on to teach in a university classics faculty is likely to come unstuck if he or she lacks proficiency in both Latin and Greek. Departments depend on their junior staff and doctoral students for language teaching. As things stand, the next generation of classics scholars is likely to be drawn predominantly from those who have had the opportunity to excel in the languages.
Sadly, this is true. I say sadly, because it means that departments are still tending, when appointing their new staff, to make the needs of a small minority of their students a priority. It means that ancient history is often taught by people who are trained as linguists rather than historians (and are, as a result, not always very good historians). It means that brillaint scholars will continue to be dismissed because 'they haven't got the languages'. It means that the next generation of scholars will continue to be primarily drawn from students of élite schools, which will reinforce the élitist image of the subject, an image which has done Classics no favours at all.

If there's hope for progress here, I suspect it lies not in the traditional Classics departments - I've been waiting for them to change their attitudes for twenty-five years, and though there are hopeful signs in places (such as what Ray Laurence is doing at the University of Kent), they are few and far between - but in Classical Civilization programmes that have grown out of History department where Latin and Greek have never really been taught, such as at Winchester, Manchester Metropolitan University, and one of my own employers, Roehampton. These programmes are massively important, making teaching about the ancient Mediterranean available to students who traditionally have had little or no access to it (this, of course, has also always been provided by another of my employers, the Open University). This is the way forward for further democratization, of the subject, which is necessary if we want Classics to regain a place at the heart of the nation's cultural life.