Friday, 9 November 2012

Sophocles on Fox News: Polls, Pundits and Peripeteia

I was so affected by the right-wing reaction to the re-election of the President of the United States that I was moved to blog again for the first time in almost a year. The loss of the Republican candidate was, in the truest sense of the word, tragic: both for him and for his supporters (including Fox News).

It was tragic because they had truly deluded themselves that they were going to win. Every election, both sides bluster about their impending victory in order to project confidence and keep their voters optimistic (if not complacent). So, conservative pundits convinced their listeners - and, it would appear, themselves - that the "scientific gobbledegook" of the aggregated poll information, compiled by analysts like Nate Silver at FiveThirtyEight and Real Clear Politics, was corrupted by liberal bias and distracting from an inevitable Romney landslide victory. Here's a taste of one of the worst offenders, Dick Morris:

Like so many tragic characters before them, throughout literature and world history, their delusions would not outlast reality - let alone change it. When the state of Ohio, and by extension the election, was called as an Obama win (indeed, a landslide), the Romney supporters, so confident of their own victory, underwent their peripeteia.

Peripeteia is the Greek word, associated most often with Oedipus Tyrannus, that describes the reversal, the complete inversion, of a character's world. Every misapprehension under which s/he laboured is shown to be false, every action taken on the basis of that misprision shown to be misguided.

It is the climax of dramatic irony - where the audience knows the truth of the situation (Oedipus is Laius' killer and is married to his mother/Obama will overwhelmingly win the electoral college) but the character refuses to accept it, even in the face of suggestion and evidence. This culminates in the inescapable revelation to the character of what the audience knew all along.

So when Romney is said to be "shell-shocked" by his loss, or Fox News and Romney campaign contributor (zeugma?) Karl Rove holds out in his delusion until reality, the ineluctable fate of his own demise, engulfs him, we should see the silhouette of Oedipus, of Aegisthus, of Creon, caught in the headlights of their peripeteia. Megyn Kelly even performs her own pilgrimage to Delphi:

But the tragic irony doesn't end there. We had already seen, through the primaries and for most of the Presidential race, Romney forced to abandon his moderate nature in order to keep his radicalised party on side, especially on women's issues: that moderation was what would have allowed him to beat a very vulnerable President; that very extremism would prove to be his downfall.

It is moreover (deliciously?) ironic that the anti-scientific stance adopted by the extreme Republican campaign, which led right-wing pundits and aides to pooh-pooh the polls, was the very source of the self-imposed ignorance of reality which would ultimately make the peripeteia so devastating, as well as being a large part of the reason that they lost (which, as pointed out above, was otherwise perfectly avoidable).  Could Sophocles have done better?

Those in America should check out The Daily Show's masterful dissection of this (in which Jon Stewart correctly describes the Republican reaction as "tragic") here. More succinctly and accessibly, xkcd:

Sunday, 18 December 2011

Immortals Review: The Bad (Spoilers)

It's been quite a while. I am now even further removed from watching "Immortals 3D" as it seems to be called, so some of the bad points that I was saving have either been forgotten, diminished in atrocity in my mind or have been rehabilitated after long thought. It almost seems a little ridiculous to review it now, actually, but I hate to leave something half-done so I'll just mention a few of the things I didn't like about the film.

  1. I find it really frustrating when a film lets a narrative thread amount to nothing, as a sort of permutation of the "and it was all a dream" bathos. It annoyed me particularly in Lord of the Rings, where the whole plot-line of amassing troops and taking stands and inspiring men's hearts was, ultimately, irrelevant in light of the necessity of throwing the ring into the fires of Mt. Doom (sorry if you haven't read or seen it - I did warn about spoilers...). The plot of Immortals was similarly frustrating, when the protagonist's failure to achieve his objectives were invariably followed by a disturbingly dressed or mustachioed deus emerging ex machina.

    But then, after all (I thought to meself), isn't that rather true to classical form? Perhaps my expectations have been softened by the vicissitudes of modern spoon-feeding Hollywood narrative ploddery, and I can't handle the authentic mythological structure of divine agency and overarching fate? So my criticism may apply cinematically, but with a view to the classical integrity of the plot, I have to conclude that, actually, the bathetic interventions of the gods and what have you are entirely apt, and my displeasure is due to my own weakness in my demand for linear, consistent story-telling.
  2. The dialogue was almost impossible not to snigger at (even the lines in Ancient Greek). It would take some more analysis for me to say exactly why, but for some reason(s) I accepted the ridiculous script of 300 - maybe something to do with the fact that I was a teenager when I first saw it. Or maybe it was the narrative of that film which allowed me to ascribe weight to the words, whereas the relative flimsiness of this plot - at no point did I actually feel that the future of civilisation depended on the outcome of any particular crisis - prevented me from taking the words as they were meant.
  3. All of the actors were hitting way below their batting averages. It goes without saying that Mickey Rourke can do better that this film, but even in dross such as The Expendables and Iron Man 2 he delivers a convincing performance; not so in Immortals, when he seems to need a throat lozenge and/or Prozac. I can't remember ever having seen John Hurt fail to impress me in a role, but he seemed to be smirking and counting his fee throughout this one. Freida Pinto had apparently just been told to be as sexy as possible, which she accomplished without, I'm sure, finding it too taxing (of course, she's no Nancy Kovack). Ultimately, I think this is the fault of the scriptwriters and the director, for failing to give these considerable talents decent material to work with, or competent guidance in doing so.
I think that should be enough to round off this unfortunate foray into the world of watching-films-and-then-blogging-about-them.

Thursday, 24 November 2011

Immortals Review: The Good (Spoilers)

I have now, finally, after all of that anticipation, seen Immortals (not "The Immortals", as previously written). It was quite a bizarre experience. I've taken a few days to mull over the film, and have decided that the best way to structure my review/response/reaction would be to split it in two, the first post listing all of the positive and/or commendable aspects of the film, and the second unleashing some of the detracting elements (I think you can see where I'm going with this).


  • Some of the mythology is correct... sort of. Theseus is famous for fighting a minotaur in a labyrinth, even if the circumstances are about as radically different from the ones presented in the film. In fairness, however, the final scene of the film suggests that the myth passed down to us (as represented by the friezes and large statue of Theseus fighting the minotaur) is in fact a distortion or exaggeration of the "true events", which, if I'm interpreting that correctly, does imply some degree of narrative consistency. That is to say, the whole point of the film is to show the events that spawned the legends familiar to us today. Could be.
  • The treatment of the notion of immortality in Greek eyes was actually fairly convincing, with Hyperion (?!) projecting a model of paternal continuity, as opposed to Theseus' conception (no pun intended) of "deeds" rather than "flesh" being immortal. I was reminded not only of the general themes of kleos and so in Greek mythology, but also Book 16 of the Odyssey, where Telemachus emphasises the fragility of his family line:
ὧδε γὰρ ἡμετέρην γενεὴν μούνωσε Κρονίων·
μοῦνον Λαέρτην Ἀρκείσιος υἱὸν ἔτικτε,
μοῦνον δ' αὖτ' Ὀδυσῆα πατὴρ τέκεν· αὐτὰρ Ὀδυσσεὺς
μοῦνον ἔμ' ἐν μεγάροισι τεκὼν λίπεν, οὐδ' ἀπόνητο.
For in this way the son of Cronos has made our bloodline solitary:
Arcesius sired Laertes as an only son,
Then he in turn was the father who sired Odysseus only; but Odysseus
Sired and left me in his halls alone, and had no enjoyment from me.
(That's my attempt, there are better translations here, here and arguably here)
So, the tension in the film is essentially the same as the central concern of the Homeric epics, where Achilles in the Iliad could hardly be more indifferent towards either his own life or that of his son - here, Theseus dies in pursuit of glory without even knowing that he has a son.
  • The whole idea of the gods being mortal - indeed, dying, as they do in the bust-up with the released Titans - is not such a crazy one. In fact, I myself once wrote an essay (and perhaps at some point will write a post) on the mortality of the immortals, so these chaps must be on to something.
  • Despite the general fuzziness regarding the mythology (which could be intentional and excusable, as discussed earlier), some of the details were traditional. For example, that Theseus' girl-acquaintance is called Phaedra, and that together they have a son named Acamas (Immortals 2?). The Titans in Mt. Tartarus. And so on (yes, alright, I can't remember any others, but I had a (slightly longer) list when I came out of the film).
  • Some of the fight scenes were quite well choreographed (even if for the most part they tended towards a sort of "300-lite", and the 3D was rubbish... no, that comes later).
  • The opening scene was in... Ancient Greek. Ish. Okay, it wasn't exactly the right dialect, and it wasn't strictly speaking logical that the sybils should speak Ancient Greek to each other while everyone else spoke American English, and the subtitles didn't absolutely match what was being said (I look forward to the inevitable YouTube video with "correct" subtitles), but it was a nice effort, and a refreshing break from antisemitic caricatures hurling abuse in Aramaic at Jesus while Pontius Pilate mutters mournfully to himself in Latin. Which reminded me of the opening scene of A Serious Man.

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

On Floating Islands and Fixed Idiocies

I was amused recently (alright, not that recently, I've been busy) to read about this cockamamie scheme, thought up by Patri Friedman (grandson of Milton) and massively contributed to by Peter Thiel, billionaire founder of PayPal, to establish a floating libertarian utopia in the middle of international waters. The organisation is called the Seasteading Institute, and apparently they are serious.

My first reaction on reading about this peculiar utopian vision was to recall the various floating islands in literature (Wikipedia has a pretty decent but not comprehensive list), from Aeolia to Sea-Star Island, from the 1967 Rex Harrison Dr. Dolittle film. I was going to do a post based on floating islands in the ancient world, but that's already been done, albeit almost a century ago, by Cook, in Appendix P of his monumental "Zeus: A Study in Ancient Religion":

Instead, I want to talk about the narrative of the story, rather than the props. It struck me that the aims of these sea-steaders are almost identical to those of Pisthetaerus and Euelpides in Aristophanes' Birds, who, disillusioned with the litigiousness of Athens, leave to start a new "colony" in the sky, free from the the strictures of big government the law courts. In a remarkably well-wrought and bittersweet satire, Aristophanes shows us the deterioration of this noble (?) idea into a simple replication of the very features of Athens they sought to escape, in an ingenious parody of the acquisitive Athenian imperialism of the time.

They may as well name this floating island on the high seas "Nephelokokkygia", not simply because it's such a pie-in-the-sky (pasty-in-the-sea? croissant-in-the-ocean?) idea, but because the original phrase "Cloud Cuckoo Land" actually comes from an almost identical idea to this one!

I love the smell of symmetry in the morning.


New development in the cross-over between floating islands and idiocy.

Saturday, 19 November 2011

Top Classical Films, in Anticipation of The Immortals: Part 2

Here, I continue my countdown of my ten favourite classics-related films (for #10-5, and for links to three trailers for the film The Immortals, see here), as I prepare mentally and emotionally to watch the film as soon as possible (tomorrow hopefully).

5. Ben Hur

Good reasons to like: I must confess that I haven't actually seen this preposterously long Heston-fest in one sitting from start to finish, but I have seen all 222 minutes of it at some point or another, and it did win 11 Oscars, so I couldn't really leave it out of the list. And besides, any film that involves racism, buxom Jewesses and cruelty to animals is alright in my book.

Silly reason to like: Like many films from the period, the scores of extras are pricelessly gormless.

4. 300

Good reasons to like: Despite widespread derision and pooh-poohing, this film is, to my mind, right on the money. Contrary to the claims of many critics, rather than imposing anachronistic norms and ideals onto ancient times, 300 follows the account of Herodotus fairly closely, even down to one of my favourite jokes in Greek literature, from Spartan quipster Dieneces (although in the film it's delivered by 'Stelios' and in the wrong context): having been told that the arrows of the Persian archers would block out the sun, he responds: "[Good.] Then we will fight in the shade." Beyond that, a stirring and entertaining retelling of a truly significant event in Western history - with no more embellishment, I would argue, than Herodotus' own account.

Silly reason to like: "Spartans, what is your profession?!" "A-oo! A-oo! A-oo!"

P.S. What happened to Gerard Butler?

3. Jason and the Argonauts

Good reasons to like: Another Harryhausen classic, but so much better than the original Clash of the Titans. Some of the special effects are breathtaking, and the mythology is hard to fault. One of the oldest and best stories from the Greek canon, it's not only the adventure that's well delivered: the scenes that focus on political intrigue, romantic eye-brow-waggling and philosophical introspection are every bit as riveting as the giant metal-man and the animated skeletons. Even if they weren't the last few words of that sentence justifies this film's place on the list.

Silly reason to like: On a personal note, when my Dad sat me down in front of this movie when I was a wee lad, it not only sparked an enduring interest in Classics, but also (and more significantly) Medea (Nancy Kovack) presented me with my first ever crush. Fact.

2. Gladiator

Good reasons to like: Now, on this one I don't think I'll have any disagreement - save for the fact, perhaps, that I haven't put it at number one. Ticks all the boxes, from direction to acting to score to cinematography (whatever that is), and ridiculously quotable. In fact, it's hard not to just list all of the brilliant lines from the film. Would you not be entertained?! (What we quote in blogs, echoes in eternity.)

Silly reason to like: The closest Russell Crowe has ever come to maintaining an accent throughout a film.

1. Hercules

Good reasons to like: Well, I mean, it's a Disney film, isn't it? And a cracker, at that. Maybe a bit heavy on the anachronism-based jokes, but solid family-fare from the greatest film-makers in History (this blog will talk a lot about Disney, just warning you now). Stellar performances from the always fantastic Danny DeVito and James Woods, consistently good songs, with consistently good lyrics set to consistently good music, and a wholesome message to boot. God, those people at Disney know what they're doing. And it's (sort of) got (some of) the Classics (almost) right.

Silly reason to like: At one point, Herc(ules) takes off a lion-skin and Phil(octetes) wipes his face with it - the skin in question belongs to Scar, from the Lion King. Cute.

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Top Classical Films, in Anticipation of The Immortals: Part 1

In England, the long-awaited Classics-based thrill-fest The Immortals came out in cinemas on Friday. Tragically, I have not yet had a chance to watch the film, and probably won't until at least Sunday, but I have every reason to expect it will be as riveting and moving as the various trailers.

Others have been less optimistic, and in their glass-half-empty churlishness have compiled lists or parodies of previous unfortunate cinematic forays into Greek and Roman mythology. This one is fairly neutral. I, however, am made of jollier stuff, so here is my countdown of Classical films which were are actually genuinely good.

10. Troy

Good reasons to like: Though much maligned, this film has suffered a great deal of snobbery from critics and certain audiences. Let alone the fact that it's an enjoyable and entertaining movie, it does render Homer's characters (Brad Pitt's brooding Achilles, Eric Bana's tragic Hector and Orlando Bloom's cowardly, effeminate Paris particularly) and themes (immortality, kleos, war, loyalty and greed) quite faithfully, even if some of the action has been jazzed up (the Achilles/Hector showdown) or radically changed (I don't remember Agamemnon being stabbed in the Iliad by Briseis...).

Silly reason to like: The score by Yated was scrapped for being too "old-fashioned" and a new one was written last minute by James Horner. "Horner" looks quite a lot like "Homer". Coincidence?

P.S.: Also, here's a little bit of insider gossip for you: I've been told that after a screening of the film for academics, they were asked by the producers not to reveal the ending...

9. Spartacus

Good reasons to like: One can get pretty dewy-eyed about the "golden age" of Hollywood film-making, but this truly was an epic work, with fully fleshed out (if not quite three-dimensional) characters and a long-enough running time (184 minutes) for a properly developed (some might say over-developed) plot. It also has the courage to eschew Hollywood "happy ending" cliches: the most famous (and oft-parodied) scene from the film is undoubtedly the "I'm Spartacus!" clip embedded above, but the self-sacrifice shown in the duel between Antoninus and Spartacus, each trying to kill the other in order to spare them the ordeal of crucifixion, is somewhat more gritty, and a refreshing subversion of goodie vs. baddie. The execution is a bit mawkish, but the morality is at least a bit ambiguous. Equally, the shot of Spartacus hanging from the cross as his son goes free is profoundly bittersweet, a happy ending of sorts tinged with realism.

Silly reason to like: Tony Curtis, who plays Antoninus, also plays the cross-dressing Joe/Josephine in Some Like It Hot. Somehow he seems to wear more make-up in Spartacus.

8. Clash Of The Titans (Original 1981)

Good reasons to like: It's another top notch film, except doesn't take itself too seriously and prioritises fun over fidelity to mythology. Yes, it's a bit of a hodge-podge when it comes to the details, but the fundamental plot is mainly true to the original Perseus story. I've always found Calibos quite sympathetic, and found his speech rather moving. Maybe it's because I'm a deformed demi-god who has trouble letting go. Most important, however, and what elevates this film from being too silly is Ray Harryhausen's special effects, in the last film he would work on. Nostalgia overload.

Silly reason to like: Simply because it isn't the atrocious 2010 remake.

7. O Brother Where Art Thou

Good reasons to like: This is an allegorical offering from the Coen brothers, meshing the Odyssey and Americana to deliver a hugely effective result. Ulysses Everett McGill, as the trailer says, has to "get home to his wife and kids", facing Sirens and a Cyclops along the way. This is I suppose an extreme case of the trend exhibited by Troy - it gets the basic themes and characters right, so much so that you don't care about the small differences. They are especially forgiveable in this film, because, well, it's set in the 1930s America South. The subtle references, for example to Odysseus' epithets, make this a particular treat for the classically literate.

Silly reason to like: The name of the film is a reference to the 1941 film Sullivan's Travels, in which the title character proposes to make a film called 'O Brother Where Art Thou', where the name is deliberately and satirically pretentious.

6. A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum

Good reasons to like: Similar to O Brother Where Art Thou, this is a sort of meshing of Roman comedy and American wise-guy humour (epitomised by Phil Silvers, "The King of Chutzpah", who stars as the slave dealer Marcus Lycus, having previously turned down the role of Pseudolus). All of your favourite stock characters are here, with a brilliant (if annoyingly catchy) score by Sondheim adapted by Ken Thorne, and Buster Keaton's last ever performance. What's more, it's genuinely funny. At least, I think so. While it isn't as good as the original musical, it's still hugely entertaining and not to be missed.

Silly reason to like: It stars Zero Mostel, who also played Tevye the Milkman on Broadway in Fiddler on the Roof, the greatest musical of all time, and therefore everything he is in must by definition be amazing.

(to be continued...)

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Pop Classics 1: Noah and the Whale, Jocasta

First in a new series, in which I post modern songs based on Classical mythology or history. This is one of my favourites, and is quite well acquainted with the source material. Noah and the Whale's first stanza is sung in the first person by Jocasta, Oedipus' mother, seemingly justifying to herself her decision to expose the baby:
Oh, its flesh keeps them alive,
Oh, as death helps life survive,
Oh, the world can be kind in its own way.
Of course, the real reason is the fear of Laius' death, which has been prophesied to occur at the hands of the baby. It is his life that will survive as a result of the death; but Jocasta couches it in terms of helping the wolves survive, giving them their food. That way, her atrocity is spun as being natural, in keeping with the natural order.  In Oedipus Tyrannos (720-722), Jocasta does a similar thing, disavowing the act by saying that Apollo did it:
Κἀνταῦθ' Ἀπόλλων οὔτ' ἐκεῖνον ἤνυσεν
φονέα γενέσθαι πατρός, οὔτε Λάϊον,
τὸ δεινὸν οὑφοβεῖτο, πρὸς παιδὸς θανεῖν.
And then Apollo did not let that
Murder of his father happen, nor Laius -
The terror which he feared - be killed by his son.
The second verse seems to be by someone talking to Jocasta (the Chorus, perhaps), explaining the futility of her attempts to subvert the strictures of fate.  When it refers to "her husband" for whom she has grieved, there is a wonderful (Sophoclean?) ambiguity as to whether this refers to the murdered Laius, whose murder she sought to prevent by her exposure of her son, or in fact her eventual husband, Oedipus, who wasn't dead but whose death she was prepared to cause.  In seeking to save her husband, she killed (as far as she knew) her child - in fact, the child survived and the husband died, but the child (for whom she grieved) became her husband.

All in all, quite a sensitive song, with lyrics that seem to understand the subject matter and shed light on a previously under-explored area of the myth, namely Jocasta's feelings about the exposure of her son, and the irony of which of her husbands dies and how.