16. La caduta di Troia (The Fall of Troy) (Italy, dir. Giovanni Pastrone and Luigi Romano Borgnetto, scr. Giovanni Pastrone, starring Luigi Romano Borgnetto, Giovanni Casaleggio, and Madame Davesnes, Itala Film, 1911)
A short, sometimes, as this poster shows, known as L'assedio e la caduta di Troia (The Siege and Fall of Troy). Rewatched as research for my Historical Fictions Research Network paper, back in February. It's an interesting treatment. Some of the tropes of modern adaptations are fully in place here, e.g. it tells the whole story of the war, not just the events of Homer's Iliad (in fact, the Iliad doesn't get a look in), and eclecticism runs riot in the design, drawing upon Classical Greece for the Spartan place, but with a very Roman garden, and Egyptian slaves, whilst Troy itself is full of Greek, Persian, Assyrian and Roman elements. On the other hand, this is still treated as mythology, with an active role for Venus in the eloping of Paris and Helen, and no better reason is given for the war beyond the insult to Menelaus dealt by Paris when he ran off with the Spartan King's wife. Classical Receptions Bingo Card: Of course.
I have joined a virtual film night group of friends, and this is the first movie I watched with them. Not surprisingly, this, the tale of the excavation of the Anglo-Saxon ship butial at Sutton Hoo, as the clouds of war gathered, was a movie I wanted to see ever since I became aware of it (which admittedly wasn't that long ago). The Anglo-Saxons are after my period (nasty modern rubbish), but I've done a fair bit of archaeological fieldwork in my time, and I think that this movie gives you some idea of how hard the physical work of excavating an archaeological site can be when you haven't got mechanical diggers to do the difficult and boring bits. Of course, there's a great deal of artistic license in the production of the movie, falling into all-too-predictable patterns (the 'professional' archaeologists all look down on the 'amateur' Basil Brown). I'm okay with most of the license, but I wish it hadn't been necessary to denigrate Peggy Piggott; she is depicted as someone with little experience, who has married an older and more experienced man (it is implied, and I believe made explicit in the original novel by John Preston, that she is a student who has married her tutor). In reality, Peggy Piggott had been digging for six years by the time she turned up at Sutton Hoo, had begin her career working for Mortimer and Tessa Wheeler at Verulamium, and had met Stuart Piggott when they were both students at the University of London, and both in their late twenties. She had more paper qualifications in Archaelogy than her husband did, and had directed her own dig. In a movie that aims at raising up to public attention the work of an archaeologist who, the movie suggests, was overlooked because he was working class, it is a shame that a woman's contribution is downplayed like this. Still, The Dig looks very pretty, and the performances are good. Carey Mulligan does very well playing someone twenty years older than her; though one does wonder, given that there are precious few cinema roles for women over 40, was it necessary to give one of them to an under-40? Despite all my reservations, I nevertheless do recommend this. Classical Receptions Bingo Card: The Ipswich archaeologists are desperate to get Basil Brown to come dig on a Roman villa.
A #ClassicsTwitterMovie that is also in my Ancient Greece and Rome on the Big Screen course. My Twitter thread is here. I've been writing a lot about this movie over the last few days, for my course, and for an LGBT+ History Month event I did on 23 February. What can more one say here? I have seen this time and time again, and it never gets dull. Certainly Ray Harryhausen's best movie, one of the best movies based on ancient Greece from the great days of the Hollywood epic, and arguably one of the best movies of Greek mythology ever made. Talos is one of Harryhausen's most memorable characters, and I really like that Harryhausen has the courage to delay his first bit of Dynamation to 30 minutes into the movie. Apart from that, there's just loads to enjoy. And it's great to see so many British character actors involved; Nigel Green, Laurence Naismith, Patrick Troughton, Niall MacGinnis, Douglas Wilmer, and that's just for starters. This is the second movie Harryhausen made after moving to London (though he was still under contract to a Hollywood studio), and that really shows through in the casting. Classical Receptions Bingo Card: House!
Another virtual film group movie; my pick, in fact. This rather seems to have flown under a lot of people's radars. I remember seeing it in a largely empty cinema, and the movie barely made its money back. I guess the lack of sheep, chickens or cheese-obsessed Yorkshiremen meant it didn't appeal to the wide audience Aardman can usually expect. Which is a shame, because it's really rather excellent. Funny throughout, if you can forgive some extreme punning, and also quite sweet. Tom Hiddleston is almost unrecognisable, and clearly having an enormous amount of fun voicing villain Lord Nooth with an outrageous French accent (please read that in an outrageous French accent). And I love the joke about the dinosaurs called 'Ray' and 'Harry'. Well worth following up, if you haven't seen it. Classical Receptions Bingo Card: the Bronze Age looks remarkably like ancient Rome, with some references to Greece thrown in.
Another #ClassicsTwitterMovie, in case you couldn't guess. The thread starts here. I'm not wholly sure whether I think 300 Spartans is a good movie. I think it's better than 300; it's certainly less racist and dehumanises the Persians far less, even if it doesn't quite have the style of 300's imagery. It's also probably the best movie from the 1950s and 1960s set in ancient Greece, but then there's not a lot of competition, since so few were made. It's definitely not a better movie than the likes of Ben-Hur or Spartacus. Its reconstruction of the Battle of Thermopylae is more accurate than that of 300, but again, that's not saying much. Ralph Richardson brings some much needed gravitas to the movie, but he doesn't wholly give the impression that he's taking it seriously. Richard Egan, on the other hand, is taking things Very Seriously, in the way that William Shatner would later make his own. My favourite moment remains where somebody who is Greek turns to someone else who is presumably Greek, and explains what a Greek phrase means. Classical Receptions Bingo Card: molon lave.
21. Le mépris (Contempt) (France, dir. & scr. Jean-Luc Godard, starring Brigitte Bardot, Rome Paris Films/Les Films Concordia/Compagnia Cinematografica Champion, 1963)
And once again, we are with #ClassicsTwitterMovie. My Twitter thread is here. What a delight it is to watch again this wonderful movie, and to bring it to a new audience. It looks and sounds beautiful, thanks to vibrant colours from cinematographer Raoul Coutard, and the lush strings of Georges Delerue's score. It's my favourite adaptation of the Odyssey (yes, over O Brother, Where Art Thou?, and that is also a movie I love), and probably my favourite adaptation of Homer. I need to watch À bout de souffle and Alphaville again to decide if this is my favourite Godard. Godard is extremely playful throughout this, keeping a minimum of jump-cuts, so the narrative isn't hard to follow, and subverting Bardot's image as a sex kitten, whether through utterly gratuitous shots of her lying naked on thick rugs, or dressing her up to look like Anna Karina (Godard's then wife). Jack Palance is also excellent as the sleazy and violent American producer. If you've never seen this movie, do yourself a favour and correct that. Classical Receptions Bingo Card: Jack Palance trying to seduce Bardot by showing her a book of Roman erotica.
I watched this as preparation for my class on versions of the Odyssey. Oh my. I confess to not being terribly familiar with the product of The Asylum before now, having slogged through ten minutes of Hercules Reborn (2014) before finding something better to do with my time, and I have never seen Sharknado. This is essentially a version of the Odyssey that seeks to cash in on Wolfgang Petersen's Troy a mere thirteen years after the Hollywood movie's release. The story appears to be constructed by chopping up Homer and throwing all the bits up in the air, and then adding a few extra bits. There's a Sword of Troy, which Odysseus seems to have go hold of, and is a full-on magic sword. There's a Kraken, because if your knowledge of Greek mythology is entirely based on movies, you probably think that's a Greek beast. There's fighting female Chinese monks guarding Troy, because ... no I can't explain that. Agamemnon, who appears to be a particularly angry Aussie Rules football player, is married to Helen. After Troy is stormed by about a half-dozen Greek soldiers, who vaguely tap at Trojan opponents with spears, in the background while the main cast are doing fight scenes, Odysseus heads home on what would be generously described as an overgrown dinghy. Fortunately, there are only three other Ithacans going home with him, which means there is space to give a lift to the Trojan priestess Circe (I am not making this up!), who decides Odysseus is a good bloke and worth fighting for, for no very good reason. There's Sirens! Who are the same as Calypso! There's a Minotaur in the Paths of the Dead. There's a Cyclops at the other side of the Paths of the Dead. Eventually Odysseus gets home, kills the Suitor and reunites with Penelope, only to have to fight off the Kraken! (I bet you'd forgotten about the Kraken. Odysseus certainly had.) Amazingly, this is not as bad as you might expect it to be. Which is still pretty bad. Classical Receptions Bingo Card: Norse! The Kraken is Norse!
Another virtual film night movie. A weird one here. Colossal is billed on websites as a 'comedy' or a 'black comedy'. It is nothing of the sort. There are no real laughs anywhere in this movie, and it isn't really trying for them. It plays with romcom tropes early on, but halfway through reveals that actually it's a stalker movie. Or at least, that's one of the genres it is trying to bring together; the other is the classic Japanese monster movie (though for geographic reasons in this case, the monster is in Korea, not Japan). The central premise is intriguing, and there's a good central performance here by Anne Hathaway, who certainly gets more to do than usual. But for most of the time, the attempt to blend the two genres never quite works for me, until the very end, which is clever and satisfying, and almost makes up for the weakness of the rest of the movie. It doesn't help that all the men in her life are horrible, and can't respect boundaries, even the one who's meant to be the 'nice' one. So I'm not sure I could honestly recommend this to anyone. Classical Receptions Bingo Card: Colossus of Rhodes, innit?
Another virtual film night, and another movie I'd been long meaning to get round to, because of my interest in London and the fantastic. It's been a while since I read Phillip Reeve's novel (and, of course, it's the only one in the series I can't find at the moment), and I don't remember it that clearly. Insofar as I do, this movie seems to treat it with respect, and preserves the main beats of the novel, though I remember that Hester and Tom don't get together until later in the series, and Katherine Valentine dies. I also seem to remember that the buzz around this movie from people I knew was that it was okay, if you didn't go in expecting the book. With this I concur. This movie was mauled by the critics, and flopped at the box office, but it's really not that bad, and the Traction Cities are well-envisaged. Reeve himself likes it. Classical Receptions Bingo Card: The deadly super-weapon is called the MEDUSA.
Another #ClassicsTwitterMovie, and the final movie in my Ancient Greece and Rome on the Big Screen course. The Twitter thread is here. This is an extremely important movie, for reasons that Nadhira Hill discussed briefly in her talk at the Res Difficiles 2.0 conference, the day before we did our viewing. She says 'for the first [and only] time I was seeing people like me [i.e. Black Americans] engaging with Classics'. This is a very important thing to say. It is still all too easy to conceive of Classics as by whites, for whites, and about whites. Chi-Raq says that these texts are part of Black American culture as well, just as Athol Fugard, John Kani, and Winston Ntshona's The Island connected Black Africans with Sophocles. It's also a pretty good movie, that deserves to be better known. It negotiates shifting tone from comedy to brutal tragedy effectively, and rather than exploiting Black trauma for the purposes of entertainment, as some accused it of, it uses entertainment to highlight Black trauma. Classical Receptions Bingo Card: Essential.
Another virtual film night movie. The significantly fictionalised story of the creation of the screenplay for Citizen Kane, this has been festooned with Oscar nominations, at least partly, I suspect, because Hollywood likes to celebrate itself, even if this movie does attack the financial duplicity of Louis B. Meyer, and the pro-Republican propaganda of Irving Thalberg. It's beautifully shot, and a nice bit of familial pietas, as David Fincher directs a script by his late father, and Charles Dance is superb as William Randolph Hearst. But Gary Oldman is giving That Gary Oldman Performance, that we've seen before in Leon and Immortal Beloved. It doesn't help that he's about twenty years too old for the role; as the screenplay reminds us regularly, Herman Mankiewicz was in his mid-forties when he wrote Citizen Kane, and his mid- to late thirties for the flashbacks when he was part of William Randolph Hearst's circle, whilst Oldman is in his early sixties. This is not to say that Mank is bad, but I don't think it's as good as everyone else is saying it is. Classical Receptions Bingo Card: Mankiewicz's younger brother Joe, depicted in the movie, went on to direct 1953's Julius Caesar and 1963's Cleopatra.
Another #ClassicsTwitterMovie. My Twitter thread is here, and I actually reviewed this movie when it came out. It has a lot of the same Old Hollywood vibes as Mank. But it's a much less cynical work, with more of a feeling that Hollywood is doing something worthwhile. Of all the Coen Brothers movies I've seen, it is the one with the least substance. But it's still a lot of fun. Classical Receptions Bingo Card: Not just the movie-within-a-movie Hail, Caesar!, but also some of the elements in Scarlett Johansson's Esther Williams routine.
I've actually read a book this year. I read this for an Ursula K. Le Guin reading group I'm part of. It's a collection of short stories about different planes that can be accessed while waiting for planes. Few of these are straightforward stories with beginnings, middles and ends; most of them feel like entries in a travel guide, if a little more literary. A number of the stories are satirical, particularly one, 'The Royals of Hegn', attacking the British obsession with the Royal Family. Quite a few stories are about the fact that we can never really understand the foreign cultures we visit; in one, 'Feeling at home with the Hennebet', the narrator is unable to understand the meaning of certain words the Hennebet use which are obvious to them, in 'The Nna Mmoy Language' an entire language is incomprehensible, and in 'The Building' locals are unable to explain in a manner that visitors can grasp why they have been working on a building for centuries. Classical Receptions Bingo Card: On one plane, the locals look very much like satyrs.
February's entry for #ClassicsTwitterComics. Every year or so, I reread Three. Not because I love it, but to try to find out why I don't. I ought to. It's a reception of ancient Sparta. I'm interested in any form of comics reception of the ancient world, and have been interested in Sparta since my days as a postgraduate, supervised by the man who was the historical consultant for Three. The writing is obviously skillful, and the art superior. Other Kieron Gillen stuff I do love, like Phonogram and The Wicked + The Divine. (I also know Kieron and like him; fortunately, he's well aware that Three doesn't quite work for me, and this isn't an issue between us.) When other people talk about why they think Three is so great, on an intellectual level I can absolutely see where they're coming from. Yet every time, I bounce off the story. For some reason, I just don't seem to care that much about the three helots, or King Kleomenes II. I expect, after so many rereadings, there's now very little chance either that I will have a sudden revelation and get it, or that I will finally understand what my problem is with the comic. Classical Receptions Bingo Card: On the plus side the notes and conversation between Gillen and Steve Hodkinson brought me up to date on a lot of Spartan stuff.
#ClassicsTwitterComics for March. I'm not really familiar either with this series (I haven't read volume 1) or Marguerite Bennett's work, though I've certainly heard her name get mentioned. At the heart of the story are two queer women who can transform themselves into insectoid bodies; it's a bit Ali Smith meets Kafka's Metamorphosis. These two have to make their way in a world that rejects independent women, often in the person of some violent men, who are met with violence. It's an interesting comic, that reminds me a lot of Alan Moore's Promethea, in both good and bad ways; it's beautifully drawn, and the colours, by Jessica Kholinne, are particularly gorgeous. The story is very interested in the occult and magic, and the writing is often very clever, but it does have a tendency to go off on long didactic speeches, conveying messages that need saying, but which one suspects the audience already takes as given anyway. Classical Receptions Bingo Card: That's a Medusa figure on the cover, though she's never actually named as such.
As a postscript, the reviews of She-Hulk I mentioned in the last one of these posts, have now appeared at The Slings and Arrows Graphic Novel Guide. I reviewed Essential The Savage She-Hulk, Marvel Masterworks: The Savage She-Hulk, volumes 1 and 2, The Sensational She-Hulk by John Byrne, and Sensational She-Hulk: The Return, and the collected Sensational She-Hulk by John Byrne Omnibus. The Savage She-Hulk material is drivel; positively embarrassing. The John Byrne material is very much better. The Return isn't so great; Byrne quickly seems to lose interest, and starts repeating himself, and the gag wears thin pretty quickly. But the collection of his first run is really quite fun. Nothing earth-shatteringly significant at all; just gags about the medium (Deadpool before Deadpool, and less crude), and a series of Marvel's Silliest Villains. But it's not meant to be particularly significant. It's just a bit of fun on Byrne's part. Some people don't like Byrne's artwork; I generally do, though I think he tends to be better with a sympathetic inker than when inking himself, and sometimes (though not really in this material) he can make people look emaciated. Byrne has turned into a horrible man in his old age, but he rescued She-Hulk and gave her a personality, and She-Hulk fans have to acknowledge that. (In fairness, I think that mostly they do.) And yes, I know the colouring on that cover is horrible. Classical Receptions Bingo Card: There's lots of references to Prince Namor, ruler of Atlantis, whom Byrne was writing at the same time.1 and 2. As a Classicist, I find Epicurus, with its unashamedly anachronistic mixing of historical figures from different periods and mythological personages, very amusing, but I strongly suspect I am almost exactly the target audience; certainly, some have attacked Epicurus for its niche interests, though other non-Classicists like it, and there is plenty of slapstick to keep the reader entertained. I would also contend, much like Austin Powers, that the later iterations of Epicurus never quite match the sheer invention of the first, and indeed (and much, again, like Austin Powers) it ends up re-using the same jokes. This is not to say that volume 2 is bad; it just isn't quite as good as volume 1. I hope to be writing in more depth about the reception of the Persephone myth in volume 1; you can watch a preliminary version of what I have to say one hour into the video here, but I warn you that this is very preliminary, and there's a lot more work I need to do on this material. Anyway, I think there are far worse receptions of Ancient Greek pholosophy out there. Classical Receptions Bingo Card: There's this cave, with shadows, and stuff ...
5. Girl on an Altar, by Marina Carr, directed by Susie McKenna and Indhu Rubasingham, Kiln Theatre, 2021 *
I'm also in a virtual theatre-going group, and this was seen with them, though it was shown on BBC Four as part of their Culture in Quarantine: Shakespeare series; I've put it here as it is a recorded play performance. The plot is pretty well-known to everyone, though I had forgotten the role of Paris in events. This was a good production, with particular standout performances from Gill as Romeo, and Andrew French as Friar Laurence, perpetrator of one of the worst cunning plans in literature. Karen Fishwick's Juliet was a bit over-the-top at first, but I warmed to her as the play went on, and everything got more serious. Classical Receptions Bingo Card: 'You are a lover; borrow Cupid's wings.'Alley Theatre, 2021 *
An interesting comparison with Pasolini's movie, seen with my virtual theatre group (or at least a small subset of them). The production was made by filming all the cast in close-up; none of them interacts physically with anyone else. Mary-Kay Gamel's translation is excellent; vibrant English that still respects the Greek. And there are excellent performances, particularly from Elizabeth Bunch in the title role, and Chris Hutchinson as a loathsome Jason, who clearly believes in the rightness of his actions. This is still available to see until 11 April, and I heartily recommend it. Classical Recptions Bingo Card: Still not Team Jason.
Audiohttps://www.listennotes.com/podcasts/coffee-and-circuses/1-documentary-rosemary-RQ8mvdpOnTH/ (2020) *
Last year I got invited to contribute to a documentary on Rosemary Sutcliff, which I was delighted to do. But I hadn't listened to it yet. I sound terrible, but lots of other people also contribute much more interesting bits. I found it very useful for filling in some of Sutcliff's background. There are some very poignant reminiscences from her godson, and an interesting light on how she felt about the relationships between men she depicted. (Had I listened to this earlier, I would probably have talked about a Sutcliff novel for my LGBT+HM show-and-tell.) I should be getting round to rereading her books in the next few months, so that will get reported here. Classical Receptions Bingo Card: Eagles.
(I have also been listening to a lot of episodes of Hammer House of Podcast, which is fun. I've been working my way from the beginning, and have got up to Bonus Episode 23, and have also listened to the latest five episodes, and, for research purposes, the one on She.)