Monday, 23 February 2015

The Gospel According to St Matthew (dir. Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1964)

I'm trying to practice my limited Italian before going to Rome this summer, so to help me out, Mum and Dad kindly bought me Pasolini's classic 1964 film for my birthday, which I hadn't seen before.

Although I'm familiar with various choral versions of particular Gospels (I seem to remember singing Bach's St John's Passion with the university choir once) most of the Jesus films I'm familiar with (Jesus of Nazareth, Jesus Christ Superstar, Godspell, The Passion of the Christ - oh, and The Life of Brian) blend elements from all four Gospels into one. Over the years, I've sometimes rather forgotten which bits belong to which Gospel, so it's really interesting to see just one of them set out here. Even some elements I did remember as being particular to one Gospel were fascinating to see fully separated out. I know that the Nativity story exists only in Matthew and Luke, and that Matthew covers Joseph's dream, Herod and the wise men, while Luke includes Mary, Gabriel, no room at the inn and the shepherds, but after decades of school Nativity plays, it's very strange to actually see only the Matthean parts of it without the Luke bits.

Pasolini does very slightly veer from strict adherence to Matthew at the end, as John is clearly present at the crucifixion, a detail recorded in no uncertain terms by John but not by the others. Jesus' cross is also inscribed with JNRJ, more usually rendered INRI - an abbreviation for 'Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews' (the Latin Iesus Nazarenus, Rex Iud├Žorum), a notice John's Gospel states was written in Greek, Latin and Hebrew and put up on Pilate's orders (John 19:19; as far as I can remember, only The Passion of the Christ has actually shown a sign with all three languages on it, partly because it has to be quite large and the writing quite small). Matthew's Gospel mentions the sign, but quotes it as saying 'this is Jesus, King of the Jews' (27:37; Hic est Jesus rex Jud├Žorum in the Vulgate). John, who is depicted as one of the younger disciples in this film, is also shown holding hands with Jesus at one point, presumably reflecting the frequent references to him as 'the disciple Jesus loved' in his own Gospel.

Matthew is an interesting choice for a Marxist director as well. I vaguely remember reading an article which I think was by Ste Croix years ago while I was revising for my final exams about economics, class and the Gospels. Possibly-Ste-Croix argued that Luke's Gospel was aimed at the poor (hence, the shepherds) while Matthew's was aimed at the better-off (the wise men paying homage emulating the elite from the east paying homage to a king or emperor). Luke's Beatitudes say simply 'blessed are the poor', implying that the fact of being poor makes one more worthy than the rich, whereas Matthew's say 'blessed are the poor in spirit', implying you can still be rich and blessed. Having said that, Matthew's Gospel does include the story of the rich man who wants to be perfect and the saying that it's easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle (the English subtitles clearly saying 'the eye of a needle' not 'the Eye of the Needle') than a rich man to enter heaven, and Pasolini emphasises the working-class status of Jesus and his disciples through costume and location.

The dialogue is taken directly from the Gospel, with minimal additions if any, so several scenes which are described in the Gospel but feature no dialogue are done without dialogue in the film, expressed largely through facial expressions. Pasolini makes some very interesting choices in casting and direction. Salome, in particular, looks quite different to many other interpretations. Her dance for Herod Antipas is often used as an excuse to have a sexy woman perform an alluring dance, allowing the audience to enjoy the dance at the same time as morally condemning it, just like Roman orgy scenes. Here, though, Salome is a much younger girl, and while her dance is pretty, it's not overtly sexual. Herod's reaction simply makes him look more leering, while Salome is clearly being ordered what to do by her mother Herodias and she herself comes across as more innocent than usual.

Pasolini's film is well known for being made in Italian neo-realist style, though as far as 'realism' more generally goes, I couldn't help comparing it to Zeffirelli's Jesus of Nazareth. Pasolini uses non-professional actors and films on location, where Zeffirelli used an all-star cast of well-known actors, creating more of a barrier between audience and film as we recognise Ernest Borgnine or Anne Bancroft as themselves. However, where Zeffirelli tried to make a film as historically accurate as possible, Pasolini uses distinctly non-Roman architecture (Zeffirelli used a ninth-century Islamic fortress, but less obviously), non-Roman hairstyles and his Roman soldiers look like they've stepped straight out of a Renaissance painting. Their round helmets are especially egregious. I also had some trouble with the fact he'd cast Mary realistically young in the Nativity scenes, but cast his own mother as the older Mary - a woman far too old at the time of filming to have believably given birth to a 33-year-old at around 12-15 years herself.

Interestingly, Pasolini also depicts some of the more ostentatious miracles left out by Zeffirelli - Jesus walking on water, and the dramatic earthquake that occurs as he dies - as well as depicting the healing of leprosy far more viscerally and physically dramatically than most. (That was a great scene - in the Gospel, Jesus tells the man not to tell anyone, but Matthew tells us he went around telling everyone. In the film, with Jesus in the foreground facing the camera, we see the man run behind him and immediately start exclaiming to everyone around him, waving his arms around frantically). Perhaps, being an atheist who believed none of it anyway, he felt more comfortable with the more obviously extra-natural elements of the story.

The whole film also has a surreal feel to it, partly thanks to the direction, but also thanks to the habit of Italian films of the 1950s, 60s and 70s of post-synching all the dialogue, so no one's lips quite match their speech. (For a long time I thought this was just Fellini being weird, but when I watched Suspiria for a Den of Geek article last week, I discovered it's a quirk of Italian cinema of that period in general). Indeed, several of the main characters are voiced by entirely different actors to those portraying them on screen. It gives everything an eerie, other-wordly sensation. This feeling is further enhanced by the wide variety of music used in the score, including sweeping classical orchestral music, guitar-twanging American blues, Christian music and a joyous theme in a style I didn't recognise.

I enjoyed this film very much. The focus on one specific Gospel makes it slightly different from other Jesus films - yes, the story is still familiar, but it's an interesting way to focus it. Pasolini could perhaps have been slightly less thorough in covering everything in Matthew's Gospel, as the section covering Jesus' various teachings, in which we simply see Jesus declaim various well-known sayings, was a bit like sitting through a slightly dull sermon in church. On the other hand, the actor playing Jesus was distractingly sexy - not that the other actors I've seen play him are unattractive (especially Caviezel, though he's too horribly mutilated for much of his film to distract in that way), but this guy oozed sexiness, and the fact he spent much of the early part of the film staring intently at people and telling them to come with him didn't help. He also had the most wonderful head of slicked-back 1960s Italian (actually, Spanish) hair, which did not entirely go with his very traditional white Jesus-robe.

All in all, I'd thoroughly recommend this to anyone interested in Jesus films, ancient world films or Italian cinema. If you want to watch something in Italian to practice the language, this is definitely my favourite of the films I've tried so far.

More film reviews

Friday, 30 January 2015

Catching up

I know the blog's been a bit quiet lately - life stuff. It may be a while before I'm able to catch up on much, but I'm still active at Den of Geek and Doux Reviews.

I'm part of teams reviewing Star Trek: The Next Generation and The X-Files at Doux Reviews. I had no idea how many TNG episodes I hadn't seen... I'm loving re-visiting The X-Files, except for the conspiracy arcs, which I always pretty much ignored from about season 3 onwards - that makes them quite difficult to review for others, as I have really no idea what's going on in most of them! Of course, The X-Files has been in the news lately, as it may be revived in a shorter form. I'm not entirely convinced that's a good idea, but on the other hand, I liked the generally disliked second movie, and the series finale was an utter mess, so maybe a short series could give the whole thing a stronger sense of closure and round it off nicely.

My current series of articles for Den of Geek consists of guides to getting into long-running shows without having to watch every single episode, especially when everyone tells you season one isn't so good but it gets better. How on earth is that meant to make me want to watch season one?! (Though I have to say, in the end, I enjoyed Supernatural season one very much, and season one of The X-Files is my favourite by far). Anyway, The X-Files will be up next, as soon as I've had time to write it (they take ages, as I have to keep checking which episode was which!) so if you've never seen the show but want to give it a go before any new version comes out, keep an eye out for that!

Also in the news in the last couple of weeks, Atlantis has been cancelled. The last seven episodes of season two will air in the spring, and then that's your lot. Honestly, I feel terrible about this because a lot of people have lost their jobs, but I'm sort of relieved. Part of the reason I haven't managed to review season two yet is that I simply haven't had time - I haven't finished season two of Plebs yet either, and I still hugely enjoy that. But part of the reason was also that it was such a slog to watch and talk about it.

To be fair, that isn't necessarily entirely down to the quality of the show. I watched a couple of episodes from the first part of season two on TV without writing them up and they passed the time reasonably well. I was very happy to see Medea appear, and although I came in halfway through the story and wasn't sure what was going on, it looked like they were doing something really interesting with Orpheus and Eurydice. Sometimes, something that's great fun to watch and is a good show is just very difficult to write about critically, as I discovered when I reviewed The Big Bang Theory for Den of Geek last year. I mean, what can you say each week - nothing much happened, but it made me laugh, because it's a sitcom and that's what they do?! It certainly exercised my creativity, that's for sure. So part of Atlantis' problem from my point of view may have been that it's fun, Saturday-night telly, it's not meant to be earth-shattering, so it isn't.

But I think there are some interesting issues surrounding what Atlantis did with the mythology as well. I'm a big fan of playing around with myth, of doing different things with it and coming up with new versions, as I'm sure you know. I’ve defended Troy many times, and I liked last summer’s Hercules (the one with The Rock) very much. I loved Atlantis’ interpretation of Hercules and as I said, it looked like they were doing something interesting with Orpheus.

But perhaps Atlantis got a bit too creative. If you’re going to write something based on or inspired by pre-existing stories, there should probably be enough of the pre-existing story that’s recognizable, otherwise what’s the point? You might as well write a fresh story with fresh characters and do whatever you want with it. Atlantis’ Pasiphae bears pretty much no resemblance to the mythical Pasiphae, it took ages for Medea to show up and Ariadne was still being presented as Jason’s main love interest, Medusa was with Hercules, Pythagoras – a real person – was there for some reason… For people who don’t know the stories, it probably doesn’t matter but it means even the most basic level of recognition is lost, and for people who know the stories, keeping up with that level of messing around with them becomes confusing after a while.

There were other issues too. Jason was given a backstory that should have informed his every move, thought and reaction – that he had grown up in the modern era (and was some kind of marine archaeologist or something, if I remember rightly) but that has hardly been mentioned since. He never feels like a modern man at all. All of the characters are rather broadly drawn, and the women got short shrift in season one, all being either saints or sinners, with only Medea in season two offering a slightly more complex character.

And on a personal level, although I absolutely love Robin Hood legends, Arthurian legends and Greek myth, I haven’t really been able to get in to any of the BBC’s dramas on the subjects. I watched a bit of Merlin, mainly for Colin Morgan, but neither Atlantis nor Robin Hood were able to boast a lead actor with as much talent or charisma as him. I can see what they’re trying to do and how they’re trying to recreate the American shows that I love, balancing humour and drama in 45 minute episodes, but somehow they never quite manage it. Perhaps they need to stop trying and be something more British instead. Just look at French zombie drama The Returned – it couldn’t be more French, and it’s brilliant.

It would also help if they decided whether they were a family show or a drama aimed primarily at adults, and stopped equating ‘family’ with ‘children’. Star Trek (various incarnations) is a family show, which means it doesn’t include graphic sexual or violent content (apart from that one time that dude’s head blew up, and some stuff that happens on Risa) but it takes its drama seriously and includes stories on all manner of topics. Atlantis, of course, suffered particularly badly in this respect, as the first series was written for an earlier time slot than it was given, and then the second tried self-consciously to be ‘darker’. I think the lesson here is, don’t write for a timeslot or an audience beyond minor consideration of how graphic you’re going to be. Write great stories for interesting characters and take care of the rest later. You can always edit out that steamy sex romp if you unexpectedly get given an earlier time slot. And don’t write for children as if they were a sub-set with different tastes than adults. Children enjoy great stories and great characters in just the same way as adults do.

I’d better stop before this gets any more ranty, and before I start explaining why I prefer Star Trek to Doctor Who and end up kicking off a flame war! Anyone have any thoughts on Atlantis? Are you sorry to see it go? I’ll miss its gorgeous set design, I think…

P.S. When drafting this post, I completely forgot the most important bit of news - my book came out in paperback yesterday! Amazon don't quite seem to have caught up to this yet but you can buy it from Bloomsbury's website. There's also a Kindle edition, and both are under £20, which is pretty great for an academic book!

Sunday, 14 December 2014

Ancient fandom and fan fiction

As I mentioned a few weeks ago, I have a pile of episodes of Plebs and Atlantis I need to get to reviewing at some point, but am too snowed under with marking (not to mention two papers that urgently need worked on) to be able to do them just now. However, during lengthy sessions of sitting at the computer snuffling, rocking back and forth a little and occasionally marking something, I have been breaking up the work by poking around on Tumblr and being generally fascinated by online fan culture. And so, for Christmas, I thought I'd do a slightly silly post looking at possible ancient counterparts to modern popular culture, fan culture and fan fiction.

Something often bemoaned on film websites and in current film criticism is the fact that an awful lot of big films at the moment are based on pre-existing properties - sequels, prequels, re-boots, adaptations of popular books, adaptations of popular graphic novels, adaptations of obscure graphic novels about trees and raccoons, etc. As a complaint, this would make no sense to the ancient Greeks, since Athenian tragedy was almost always a prequel, sequel, re-imagining or re-boot of a pre-existing story. We have one surviving historical tragedy (Aeschylus' The Persians) and references to a few others, but they don't seem to have been terribly popular. According to Herodotus, the playwright Phrynichos was fined 1000 drachmas because his play The Capture of Miletos, about the titular military disaster, was Too Soon, and the capture of Miletos was outlawed as a tragic subject (Hdt. 6.121.2).

No one knows for sure why Athenian tragedy was nearly always myth-based. It's possible that this was part of the genre (just as satyr plays used comic mythological themes and subjects) or that it has to do with the plays being performed at a festival in honour of Dionysus. On the other hand, given that these plays were entered into competitions, maybe the ancients' motivations were the same as Hollywood's. Known properties come with a built-in audience and they sell. In the case of the Athenian drama, it's not necessarily about getting bums on seats - people would probably come to the festival anyway - but it's about getting people to enjoy your play so they give it first prize. Innovation was not the Athenians' thing - although Euripides' alteration to the plot of Medea, having her murder her own children, proved extremely popular and became the most widely known version in later years, it gained him last place in that year's competition. Give people characters they already know and love and a story that fulfills their expectations, and you're more likely to do well.

Of course, all this writing and re-writing of pre-existing characters and stories leads to works that take their inspiration from and build on the works of previous authors. Modern fiction draws a line between canonical stories, written professionally by people who own the copyright to the characters, and fan fiction, written not-for-profit by fans who don't own any rights to the characters and didn't invent them. However, even in a modern context, the line between the two is increasingly blurry - non-canon but professionally written TV tie-in novels have been around for years, and now there's a new set of Sookie Stackhouse short stories written by other authors coming out - and that's not even counting belated sequels to out-of-copyright properties, like Death Comes to Pemberly or Heidi Grows Up.

In the ancient world, not only were there no copyright laws, the mythological or folkloric subjects of most of the non-historical stories that appear in much of ancient literature had no individual author or creator in the first place, and anyone could do what they wanted with them. (Original Characters and stories do, of course, also appear in ancient literature as well. Novels like Petronius' Satyricon and collections of poems like the Latin love poems of the first century BC tell, so far as we know, fresh stories with new, contemporary characters, and Aristophanes' comedies are mostly fairly original). So, is a large part of ancient literature essentially fan fiction?

The answer is probably 'not really', because fan fiction implies being a fan of a specific thing and writing more of it, whereas most ancient literature takes pre-existing stories - but not particular authors or particular versions - and re-works them, as Shakespeare did. Still, it's a pretty fine line. Lucian has something of an obsession with Homer, but since it's a negative obsession, that's more spoofing than fan fiction. Seneca seems to have had a bit of a thing for Euripides, producing his own versions of Hippolytus (Phaedra), Medea, The Madness of Heracles (Hercules), Trojan Women and Phoenician Women. One of the most fan fiction-like bits of ancient literature, though, must be Ovid's Heroides. Although not based on a particular author's work, these letters from mythological heroines to their lovers do represent a common theme in fan fiction - expanding upon existing romantic relationships between fictional characters.

Of course, one of the most prevalent themes in modern fan fiction is shipping. The term apparently originated with fans of The X-Files who wanted Mulder and Scully to get together, while 'slash fiction' (male homoerotic shipping) was apparently used even earlier to refer to Kirk/Spock fiction (i.e. Kirk slash Spock fiction) but the concept far pre-dates the internet and may even pre-date Kirk and Spock. In Plato's philosophical dialogue The Symposium, Plato has one of the speakers (Phaedrus) explain his conviction that Aeschylus is wrong about Achilles being the active partner in a sexual relationship with Patroclus, since obviously it was the other way around. Since Homer's Iliad (which at least popularised the orally-told story) never explicitly states that Achilles and Patroclus are in a sexual relationship - there's plenty of phrases that could be read that way, but nothing definite - this surely makes Aeschylus and either Plato, Phaedrus or both Achilles/Patroclus shippers, and Achilles/Patroclus the first slash couple. (Hmm, there was probably Gilgamesh/Enkidu slash as well, but I doubt that's survived). Not sure what their ship name should be - Patrilles? Does this exist online as a ship? (I bet it does. Rule 34 and all that).

Of course, one difference between ancient treatments of myth and modern story-telling is that heroic myth was generally considered to be part of history in the ancient world, even if many people doubted the specifics of it. But then, I've broken the hearts of countless students with my insistence that King Arthur wasn't real over the years. Arthurian legend - whether specific re-tellings or the stories in general - has been subject to all the usual fan treatments over the years, including fan fiction attached to particular interpretations (most recently the BBC series) and shipping (definitely in the case of the BBC series - Merthur is pretty big on Tumblr).

I mentioned above the religious context of some of these texts (plays performed at the festival of Dionysus) and I've spent years showing students Aristophanes' Frogs (featuring the god Dionysus swapping places with his slave and a lot of fart jokes) and talking to them about how different ancient religion and literature was, since the ancients made fun of their gods in a way that modern Abrahamic religions generally don't. However, I confess that lately I've even had to re-think that. I watched all of Supernatural over the summer and (spoiler alert) here is how Supernatural portrays the Judaeo-Christian God:

He's called Chuck, He's a bad writer and he has regular phone sex with a woman called 'Mistress Magda' (he's got a 'virgin-hooker thing', it seems). The show also features the archangels Micheal, Raphael and Gabriel (all 'dicks', though Gabriel is the least dickish), Uriel (downgraded to regular angel), various other angels and, debateably, Jesus. Of course, that could just be Supernatural, but then I thought about the depiction of God in Monty Python and the Search for the Holy Grail

and (one of my favourite screen depictions of God) in Dogma

not forgetting, of course, Morgan Freeman in Bruce Almighty

and Whoopi Goldberg, who has played God twice (It's a Very Merry Muppet Christmas Movie and A Little Bit of Heaven).

Jesus is more likely to be treated respectfully, seen from a distance, or not appear at all, viewed chiefly through receptions of Him (like Dogma's classic Buddy Christ). But we don't really have that much of a problem depicting God in all sorts of ways. Perhaps the majority of the writers on these projects were atheist or agnostic, and several of them certainly attracted the wrath of organised Christian Churches or fundamentalist groups. But that doesn't mean they don't exist, and there are plenty of practicing Christians like me who enjoy these works even if it does mean they stand in church singing 'The Angel Gabriel' and picturing Richard Speight Jr's waggling eyebrows.

(gif from here)

Even if we want to restrict ourselves to works written by practicing Christians and approved by Christian leaders, we've still got a pretty famous depiction of Jesus as a lion with a (subtle) sense of humour.

So, to sum up, ancient and modern literature - possibly not so different after all.

Happy Christmas!

Monday, 24 November 2014

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1 (dir. Francis Lawrence, 2014)

(In case anyone is wondering where the Plebs and Atlantis reviews are: I am planning to catch up on all of them eventually, but it's just not possible to keep up every week with my current workload. So they will appear, sooner or later!).

I'm a huge fan of The Hunger Games, so I headed out to see Mockingjay Part 1 this weekend, and I wasn't disappointed. As usual, I wish the film-makers would take a few more liberties with the books and mix things up a bit. And I'm torn on whether it should have been left at one film. I enjoyed everything here (if 'enjoyed' is the right word) and it was vaguely pulled together by the theme of the media war between Plutarch and Snow with Katniss and Peeta as their weapons. I'm also not against splitting books on principle - Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 is actually my second favourite of the Potter films (my favourite is Goblet of Fire - exactly no one agrees with me on this) and I think the only one of the Twilight films that really qualifies as a quality movie is Breaking Dawn Part 1, because that stands alone as an effective pregnancy/body horror piece. I'm not entirely convinced Mockingjay benefits from the split other than financially, as I think a bit more adaptation and willingness to cut unnecessary material might have been an improvement, and we would have got complete arcs for the new characters who, apart from Coin, mostly just appear and give the vague impression we might need to know who they are in the next film. But it leaves space for lots of little things from the books, like Prim's cat and Finnick's rope (not commented on, but seen) and I think overall it's a good film.

I was kicking myself early on in the film, as I realised I'd never really given much thought to how much District 13 resembles ancient Sparta. I've always seen it as vaguely Communist, set against the Capitalist Capitol, but when Boggs told Katniss early in this film that 'the war never ended for us' it suddenly hit me that it's not Communist so much as it is Spartan.

Judging by the (not all that reliable) evidence we have, Spartan society around the fifth century BC was focused around transforming its male citizen into the perfect army (to better be able to quell revolts from the enslaved Messenian population). Spartan citizen males ate together in a sort of mess, and the food was not especially delicious (pigs boiled in their own blood seem to have been involved). The inhabitants of District 13 eat small portions of horrible food due to rationing, but the cafeteria or mess-like dining area is similar. Spartan boys were expected to wear one style of tunic all year round so they could cope with heat and cold equally well, a bit like District 13's jumpsuits, and both the dietary and wardrobe restrictions were also aimed at making sure all citizens were equal and no one tried to raise themselves above another.

According to the ancient biographer Plutarch, after whom Plutarch Heavensbee is named, the legendary Spartan founder Lycurgus also insisted that the only form of currency to be used was big iron rods, treated with vinegar so the iron couldn't be melted down and re-used. This meant no one tried to get rich, as there was no inherent value in the money and it couldn't be exchanged with other currencies, so Spartan men were focused on improving their military skills and not distracted by trying to earn money. This would seem to fit with the Communist aesthetic and lack of currency in District 13 (I have often wondered why their President is called 'Coin' - this is surely significant, but I confess, it confuses me! Other than to imply that she is hard and cold, perhaps).

I feel like I may have heard a paper on this subject once, but I've forgotten - it certainly came back to me when Boggs explained how District 13 live by referring to the war never ending for them. The entire society is designed to be able to fight a war. Unlike the ancient Spartans, the inhabitants of District 13 don't have hundreds of slaves to do all the farming and production and so on for them, and they train women as well as men to fight, so there are some differences in how they're run, but thinking about it, it's clear that ancient Sparta is more the model for District 13 than Communist countries - though there are a fair few similarities between the two anyway.

Of course, whereas depictions of ancient Sparta tend to involve a lot of very fit men not wearing very much beyond their red cloaks and running around in the warm sunshine of Greece, District 13 is much more drab-looking. Thank goodness, then, for Effie! I was glad to see the writers (one of whom, Danny Strong, was Jonathan on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, so I have random residual fondness for him on that basis alone) were willing to make a few changes from the book, and bringing Effie in to District 13 to replace Katniss' former fashion team (minus Cinna, *sob*!) was a great idea, leading to some of the few moments of levity in the entire, grim, relentlessly sad film. (I was going to make a comment about how poor Katniss is basically crying or nearly crying through most of the film, but honestly, that could describe any of the Hunger Games films). The moment between Effie and Haymitch in the briefing was wonderful.

I was glad to see Mockingjay once again expanding the story a bit beyond Katniss' point of view, and the scene with the group of people singing 'The Hanging Tree' was very effective. I suspect being able to include scenes like this is one of the advantages of splitting the film, so it may turn out to have been a good artistic decision as well as sound for obvious financial reasons - and Mockingjay is a book with a clear halfway point and a lot of material, so it stands up to the divide better than The Hobbit being split into three. With any luck, the final installment next year will round out a solid four-part series.

More on The Hunger Games:
The book trilogy (spoilery)
The Hunger Games (spoilery)
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (also spoilery)

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

Supernatural: Fan Fiction

'Fan Fiction' is the 200th episode of Supernatural. Not many shows reach such an impressive number, but those that do include Stargate SG-1 and its fabulous, hilarious, imaginatively named 200th episode '200', so this had a lot to live up to.

Lots of spoilers below.

Supernatural has been doing intensely meta-fictional episodes in several different flavours for years (though ironically 'Meta Fiction' isn't one of them, and nor is 'Slash Fiction') so it's hardly surprising that, like SG-1, the writers went for a meta-fictional plot for the 200th episode. The story is set around a high school play inspired by the novels that tell Dean and Sam's life stories (well established within the series, and involving metaphysics rather than the usual bad adaptation of events, so they're unusually accurate. The episode set around a fan convention for them is one of my favourites). Our heroes turn up to investigate after the drama teacher, threatening to shut the show down because "there's too much drama in the drama department", disappears. It turns out the show is being protected by Calliope, the Greek Muse and goddess of epic poetry.

Supernatural has done Greek gods before and, I have to admit, more effectively. The gods in 'Remember the Titans' are dressed in modern clothing and play roles reasonably close to their mythical characters, though there were some changes to Artemis that bothered me a bit. Calliope, however, is costumed in a really basic sub-Charmed-style Greek-type dress with purple flowers on it and an arm band and bears very little resemblance to anything remotely Greek (not many pictures online yet, just this one from one of the actresses' Twitter accounts). According to Supernatural, Calliope is:

  • Associated with the 'borage' or starflower;
  • Manifests creatures from the stories she's tuned in to;
  • Uses these manifestations to inspire and protect the author until their vision is realised...
  • then she eats the author.

Some of this makes sense. Calliope is, indeed, the Muse of epic poetry so her interest in the show is logical enough - for a musical version of Supernatural, they could also have gone for Melpomene (tragic plays) or Terpsichore (choral song and dance) but I liked Calliope's justification for her interest/defense of the show on the grounds that "It isn't some meandering piece of genre dreck. It's... epic." Besides, there weren't always nine Muses and they didn't always have such clearly differentiated spheres of interest - Calliope was the mother of the famous singer Orpheus and in older art is often shown with a lyre, so it makes sense that she'd like musicals. And while manifesting creatures from stories she's especially interested in has nothing to do with Greek mythology, it's necessary for the plot of the episode to work and for her to present some kind of threat, so that's fine too (plus, scarecrow callback!).

The flower thing is bit stranger. I'm not aware of any connection between Calliope and borage flowers, though of anyone knows of one, let me know. Ovid describes her wearing her hair in an ivy wreath. I suppose the show needed to invent something specific to her that would identify her. In art she's usually depicted with a lyre, tablet and stylus or scroll - none of which would be specific enough - or the head of her son Orpheus, which she recovered after he was torn limb from limb by Bacchants. Not too grim for Supernatural, but harder to place at the scene of every disappearance or use as a decorative motif on her dress, I guess.

The bit that really bothered me, though, was the idea that after the show, she eats the author. What?! I get that she has to threaten Marie's life - again, it's the only way for the story to work - but why eat her? That's just weird. She could just kill her in some unspecified way. If I were choosing punishments for authors from Greek mythology, I'd probably go for blinding them, which is something of a theme - Homer describes a blind poet, which lead the ancients to assume he was blind, Tiresias is blinded, in some versions for revealing secrets, and Oedipus blinds himself when he discovers the truth. I guess in Supernatural that might not work because it would be too associated with the angels burning people's eyes out, but still. Or Calliope could rip people's tongues out once their song is sung, or tear them to pieces like what happened to her son or... really anything other than eating them, which makes no sense. They try to justify it with her line saying she's "consumed many authors, many stories," implying it's something to do with 'consuming' stories as art, but just.... no. Too silly. (I choose to draw the 'too-silly' line in weird places in sci-fi and fantasy, but this is one of them).

Still, the reason the depiction of Calliope is rather surface-level is because she really isn't the point here. Of course, all myths and folktales used in Supernatural are there to further its own story and parallel the show's own characters, but Calliope is a particularly empty plot device - far more so than the interesting exploration of Prometheus and Zeus in 'Remember the Titans' - because as an anniversary episode, this episode has far more important things to do. Calliope is just the necessary MacGuffin to get the boys into the school, and we all know it.

OK, anyone who's reading this blog because you're interested in classics, classical reception, or academic research, you may want to just leave it here because the rest of this post is pure Supernatural fan-girling. There may be squee-ing.

I was really worried this was going to be awful, especially when I found out it was set at an all-girls' school play. Full disclosure: I went to all-girls' schools - two of them, because we moved house when I was 14. At my new school, my friends and I were really into VC Andrews' Flowers in the Attic and its sequels - gothic horror/romance novels about teenage incest. Also ballet. A couple of years later, we put on a play we wrote ourselves, in which a couple of us performed famous songs (one of my best friends sang 'I Put a Spell on You' and I think I did 'Close Every Door' from Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat) and in which I played the main character, whose boyfriend was named after a love interest from our favourite TV show at the time. There was also Shakespeare. And 'Do You Love Me?' So there's a possibility I over-identify with Marie (except for the fact I'm a Dean girl, obviously).

Luckily, in the end, I think I loved it. It's hard to compete with 'The Real Ghostbusters' or 'Changing Channels' (or SG-1's '200') but actually, miraculously, I think they pulled it off. They manage to use the all-girls' school setting largely without being creepy about it, which is something I was really worried about. I don't think any of our teachers would ever have referred to us as 'skanks' - I hope not - but the moment in which Dean accidentally called a young girl 'bitch' was actually very funny, and otherwise the guest characters were treated pretty respectfully. This features more female characters - and more women of colour - in one episode than Supernatural has featured in the rest of the show combined. And they all lived! It was an Everybody Lives episode! Has Supernatural even done one of those before? All I can think of is 'The End', in which everyone dies in the future, and, interestingly enough, 'The Monster at the End of This Book'. Both Chuck episodes as well. Hmm.

Obviously, being an anniversary episode, there were nods to the past and in-jokes all over the place, my favourite being the amused-hurt tone in Sam's voice as he wonders why 'Destiel' and not 'Sastiel'. The writers had promised to acknowledge everyone who'd been significant to the show, so while Sam and Dean and their musical counterparts get the most attention, we see plenty of Bobby, John, Castiel and Mary Winchester in singing form as well. At one point Sam remarks on the absence of Chuck in the cast line-up, and the characters he's looking at are:

  • John, Mary, Bobby, Castiel, Dean (definitely identifiable,these have lines and sing - Sam is played by the director by this point and standing in front of them);
  • Jody Mills (a character in a police uniform, and Jody was mentioned earlier so presumably this is her), Crowley, Jo, Ellen, Ash (guesses based on costume, but Ash couldn't be anyone else);
  • And a robot.
  • Plus several stagehands in black.

Notable characters from the first five seasons not featured include Bela, Ruby, Pamela and Anna, which is a bit of a shame, so let's pretend the four stagehands are playing them. The Ghostfacers get a mention as the girls psych themselves up to go on stage, which I loved because I'm a big fan of the Ghostfacers. Mind you, that was also the point I felt the collapse of the fourth wall was starting to threaten my suspension of disbelief, because the Ghostfacers really exist in the world of Supernatural, so wouldn't fans of the books Google them and discover they were real? Best not to think about it too much.

The whole story takes the rather sweet and self-deprecating approach that the first five seasons of the show, supervised by creator Eric Kripke, are 'canon', and all the rest of it since is fan fiction. This fits with the established mythology in which the writer (Chuck) is implied literally to be God, and stopped writing after Kripke's final episode 'Swan Song' (in which Chuck disappeared). Marie's dismissal of all the rest of the show as terrible fan fiction is very funny, and aside from the final Boy Melodrama moment (I prefer the term Misty-Eyed Boy Talk myself) we don't see anything of Act II of the musical, which in Marie's version apparently included robots, tentacles and space. I was glad to hear Kevin (easily my favourite new character from the later seasons, though I like Charlie Bradbury a lot too) get a name-check as Dean fills Marie in on the details of life since 'Swan Song', but overall the focus on the first five seasons, and that fantastic 'Then' title card, was a very sweet move on the writers' part, even if partly determined by Chuck's disappearance.

The most significant 'returning' character, though, was surely the third Winchester brother, Adam. I may have actually gasped when fake-Adam came on stage at the end of the show. It's ages since anyone acknowledged the fact that poor Adam is still trapped in a cage in Hell with Lucifer and Michael, and the fact that the episode makes such a big deal of him showing up and puts his appearance in the final sequence, after Calliope is defeated, makes me wonder if they're planning to go rescue him at last. I've been enjoying the story arc in season 10 more than any of the main arcs for years (well, seasons in my case, I watched them all this summer in one big lump), as the Mark of Cain has been pretty effective, and if the boys decided to go after Adam, that would be even better, and could fix something that's been bothering fans for ages.

Also, wasn't that the same young actress playing Adam as played Castiel? Which makes me wonder - did they just run out of young actresses who could sing and had to double up, or was it deliberate? Is Adam and/or Castiel going to possess the other? (Adam could be a demon by now, or Castiel could get his grace back...). And is that why Bobby appeared as part of the Winchester family group but Castiel didn't? ('Cause that bothered me. I'm obsessed with Castiel, who is the reason I watched the show in the first place. It's still suffering from a dire case of Insufficient Castiel).

This episode did fix one long-standing issue though - the Samulet is finally back! Sort of. This is probably the closest we'll get. It was given to Dean by Marie-playing-Sam (shortly after he called her 'Sammy'), and if it's hanging in the car it can't damage Jensen Ackles' teeth, so this will have to do. That made me very happy. And CHUCK! Squee. When Chuck turns up at the end, Marie questions whether Calliope came for her or for him which... raises some interesting questions. Was Calliope actually coming to do battle with an incarnation of a vaguely Judaeo-Christian God in the form of a scruffy author? Now that would be epic...

In summary: I liked it. The cover of 'Carry On, Wayward Son' - started by the fake Mary Winchester - was surprisingly affecting and the whole episode surprisingly effective for something that could have gone horribly wrong. This can take its place among the great milestone episodes. Also, in an astonishing about-turn for Supernatural, it wasn't unremittingly depressing! We even got to see Sam and Dean drive off into the sunset. Beautiful.

Sunday, 19 October 2014

Plebs: The New Slave

If you thought Plebs couldn't get darker in tone than 'The Patron', you'd be wrong. It's hard to say whether this episode is just as dark, or even darker, since it combines a plot about having a creepy psychotic living in your house with, once again, the realities of ancient slavery, in which your only way to escape a master you don't want to work for is to get yourself kidnapped.

I love the idea of basing an episode around the impulse purchase of a very creepy slave, because the idea seems reasonably plausible in an ancient setting, but isn't something the ancients themselves wrote about (because ancient literature always emphasizes the slave's subservience to his or her master and Romans would not feel comfortable depicting any free born Roman being frightened of his slave. If you started putting that in plays or literature, the slaves might get ideas. Literature always emphasizes the absolute authority of the master, even in plays about clever slaves or novels in which the master is in love with the slave - the cleverest slave will still be afraid of his elderly master having him beaten. And, of course, since masters could have their slaves beaten whenever they wanted, slaves themselves would be unlikely to behave in any way that would make their masters uncomfortable). Tim Key's performance is great, carefully playing comedy-unhinged in a character that's just creepy enough for the joke to work without being completely horrific - very much in the vein of Eddie from Friends.

I also loved the way the episode addressed the fact that Grumio is, in fact, a pretty terrible slave, while at the same time showing that Marcus apparently does value Grumio enough (having presumably grown up together) to pay a lot of money to get him back after Grumio manages to get himself stolen and refuses to identify Marcus as his master. This, along with catching runaway slaves, is presumably why slaves in the real Roman world were often branded - and probably why slave-napping isn't something that comes up in ancient literature. The Romans were way ahead of their time when it comes to tagging your property - unfortunately in their case, the property in question was other human beings.

It's not hard to understand why Grumio was worried about having a very creepy fellow slave in the house, though putting yourself up for sale at the market is a pretty risky solution - goodness knows what sort of master you might end up with. But if Mushki attacked Grumio, the only result would be that Stylax would owe Marcus some money for damage to (or even the death of) his slave caused by Stylax's slave. On the other hand, if Mushki really went mad and killed Stylax, Grumio might be executed as well as Mushki, depending on whether they count as slaves within the same household (technically they have different masters, so he might be OK). Grumio may have felt he was better off taking his chances. Or, given that he's not very bright, he just hadn't thought through just how bad another master might end up being.

I had a couple of pedantic nit-picks with this one, the main one being that Mushki's hat looked like a freedman's cap (as modeled in the picture here) - which, for obvious reasons, a slave would not wear. It's the sort of thing that can take you out of the episode a bit. And I'm pretty sure it was the Romans who brought rabbits to Britain, so, given that we're still pre-invasion, Cynthia probably shouldn't have had a pet rabbit. And isn't Metella Cynthia's slave? Why is she being invited to dinner with her mistress?

But pedantic nit-picking aside, my main reservations are once again about the treatment of the female characters. I was a bit uncomfortable with the joke about leaving Metella's gag on, and even more so with the boys giving the psycho slave to Flavia, who may be a bit of a hard task-mistress who once tried to replace them with a furnace, but who hardly deserves to have a man who ties up and gags women knowingly placed in her home. That final scene felt really very dark to me, and not in a funny way.

I enjoyed the episode overall, though, and it certainly made me laugh. I loved Water-Man correcting his name to Water-Boy on auto-pilot before realising he'd actually been addressed as Water-Man for once, and I especially loved the use of Latin plurals for the flowers (geranii, croci etc.). I liked the joke about Metella putting tomato sauce on everything as well, something I did for years (and Mushki being set off by people putting condiments on things reminded me of one of Kryten from Red Dwarf's craziest moments, thanks to which I can no longer hear the phrase 'brown sauce' without hearing Kryten yelling in my head "You want brown ketchup with lobster?!").

It's also another episode firmly based in the realities of ancient life. I confess to feeling actually slightly uncomfortable when we opened on the slave market (partly because I associate such a scene with the heroes being auctioned off in The Chronicles of Narnia's The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, possibly) and Stylax's comparison of buying a slave to buying an aubergine is, again, pretty dark - but these are the realities of life in a slave-owning society, and the sort of thing we rarely get to see in serious dramas set in the ancient world, in which it's necessary for the hero/protagonist to come across as rather more likeable and have a rather modern and forward-thinking attitude towards slaves and slavery (though Pullo in Rome is clearly the exception to that rule). Sometimes, you need the broad scope and surreal tone of a sitcom to deal with material like this.

All Plebs reviews

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

Plebs: The Patron

(I'm a bit behind on the Plebs reviews but I'm catching up!)

How's this for a comedy pitch: in a society with a particularly high slave population and no free healthcare, a man refuses to pay for the treatment his slave needs, leaving the slave to die to save some money. That's some pretty black comedy right there, probably the blackest Plebs has done since Marcus more or less killed a man in series one's 'The Gladiator'. It basically works, but I must say I came out of this episode finally convinced of something I'd been thinking for a while, which is that Stylax is much, much nicer than Marcus. Stylax is a bit daft, but here he pays for his friend's slave's medicine out of his own pocket and grovels all over the place to both Flavia and Gaius in an attempt to get enough money to pay for Marcus' as well. Marcus, meanwhile, refuses to pay for medicine for his own slave and expects his friend to prostitute himself to get some when he needs it. Cynthia deserves better. Much better.

There's a tendency for modern writers sometimes to assume that people in the ancient world were faced with a choice when ill, of whether to pray to the gods and carry out religious or superstitious rituals, or rely on physicians and medicine. I have to admit, normally, this rather annoys me - I suspect the vast majority of people would simply do both, just as most religious people today tend to pray for health and recovery while also seeing doctors and getting scientific medical treatment. However, there were probably some people who tended to rely more on one or the other, so Cynthia's preference for religious ritual seems perfectly reasonable, and of course Marcus has other motivations.

The religious option wouldn't normally be cheaper - sleeping in an incubation sanctuary and praying for a healing dream, for example, required one to buy an animal to sacrifice before sleeping on its fleece, pay the priests and leave a substantial gift for the temple if it worked (the priests made sure to put up inscriptions noting that, for example, when one man was cured of blindness at Epidauros but didn't bring the thank offerings to the god Asclepius, the god made him blind again until he came back, presumably bringing the thank offerings this time). Cynthia's chosen ritual to the goddess Hygeia (daughter of Asclepius) sounds surprisingly cheap and short on animal sacrifice, however - and of course, Marcus' primary interest is in trying to get Cynthia to go out with him, which somewhat surprisingly nearly works.

The episode's other main plot is fairly black comedy as well, involving potential sexual harassment and a character trying to decide whether they should sell themselves to further their career. Between this and Bad Education, I'll never be able to look at Hugo from The Vicar of Dibley (or Tom from Four Weddings and a Funeral) the same way again. It was very funny though, and firmly based in real ancient Roman society, in which wealthy men acted as patrons for smaller businesses and clients.

Black though the comedy may have been, this episode was also very funny, and the make-up on the sick characters was impressive. I also loved the opening scene, set in a Roman toilet - which really were exactly like that (though surely no one would share sponge sticks - that's even worse than using someone's toothbrush...). I couldn't help thinking of The Roman Mystery Scrolls, the only other series I'm familiar with to set so much action in an accurately-depicted toilet, and author Caroline Lawrence's favourite prop, the sponge stick. The only other time I remember seeing a Roman toilet accurately depicted in a drama was a brief scene in Spartacus: Gods of the Arena, but there are other... distractions that may prevent viewers from paying much attention to the toilets in Spartacus. It's amazing the comic potential of the Romans' fondness for communal pooing hasn't been exploited more often.

What I loved about this episode was that everything in it came straight out of the ancient world. I can think of hardly anything that was contemporary in it - Landlord's life insurance scam was more modern (no life insurance in ancient Rome), but even that relied on Grumio not understanding the concept. (I'm also not sure why some of Flavia's costumes have looked sort of kimono-y lately, but I like it, it's a good look on her). Some things, like Marcus trying to get Cynthia to go out with him, are timeless, and when Gaius sat far too close to Stylax in the toilet I was reminded of people who sit unnecessarily close to someone else on the bus or in church, but most of this story could only have taken place in ancient Rome. Plus it was very funny. If only Metella could be given something to do other than being the only sane person on the block, but I suppose we can't have everything, and that shouldn't take away from how enjoyable this half hour was.

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Monday, 29 September 2014

Plebs: The Baby

I feel like I should be making some kind of Three Men and a Baby reference, but this episode is really Two Men and a Baby - Marcus wants nothing to do with any of it.

This is an episode based on a genuine ancient phenomenon, which always makes me happy (that the episode is based on something ancient that is, not the phenomenon itself, which is pretty horrible). In the ancient world, if people couldn't afford to raise a baby, they would expose it - we have a particularly brutal letter from a man in Roman Egypt to his pregnant wife telling her to raise the baby if it's a boy, but expose it if it's a girl.

One place you could expose the baby if you wanted to give it a fighting chance was the dump. People have to go to the dump to get rid of their rubbish, so there's a high chance of the baby being seen, and someone might take it in - either to raise as their own or, more likely, as a handy free slave (granted you have to put in a few years employing a wet nurse to feed it first, but at least none of your female slaves has to be pregnant for nine months, which affects their productivity). It's established here that this is how Marcus' parents acquired Grumio - on a hill, in his case - and this is how Grumio acquires Binny (technically for the ever-indulgent Marcus, unless Stylax claims her - Grumio can neither own property, including slaves, nor can he claim parental rights over any child, even if it was biologically his).

Obviously other aspects of the episode were less accurate - I'm sure I don't have to tell you that the Romans did not have paternity leave. They also didn't have orphanages - exposed babies were either picked up to be used as slaves or they died. I did like the child running around playing with a mace at the shelter though, which amused me. Perhaps it's a good thing I'm not a parent.

I loved the B plot in this episode, in which Shredder and Water-Man are replaced by a furnace and a table, thanks to the endless march of technology. I particularly enjoyed Water-Man's final triumphant "Water-Man!" as he proved that there are some things a person can do that a table can't (and nor could a water-cooler, for that matter). I was a bit confused at first when we saw the fans leaving because for a moment I thought they were chimney sweeps (which would be right out, since the Romans didn't have chimneys) - I didn't recognise the fans when they were held upright that way! Also it's late and it's been a long day...

The C plot about Cynthia's play was rather thin, but I did like her War Horse-inspired Trojan Horse costume.

Another enjoyable episode and actually almost touching in places. I rather hope we see Binny again, though since working with babies is famously difficult, it seems unlikely. I'm also still hoping Metella gets a bit more to do soon - I was almost hoping she and Cynthia would end up with Binny, just to give them a meatier storyline and something to do...

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