~ Troy, Passion, Alexander
The San Francisco Bay Guardian has a piece by David Larsen (who teaches Classics) reviewing the year's 'sword and sandal' flicks:
THE "sword-and-sandals" film comes in three generic flavors: barbarian, biblical, and Greco-Roman, each envisioning the martial values of a bygone "time before gunpowder" in its own fashion.
While the first category may be counted on to support a heavy admixture of sorcery and fabulous monsters, the prevailing conceit in the biblical and Greco-Roman epics is one of historical realism. Costumes and manners are based on the soundest classical scholarship Hollywood can buy, and intelligible modern motives are supplied for the most outlandish deeds of history and legend.
But the greatest care is routinely expended on the depiction of military techniques and implements, which strive to convince down to the last brazen detail. While nothing enhances the spell of the sword-and-sandals picture like the competing spectacle of a real war, it seems that nothing is held to be more fatal to the spell than a filmgoer's companion leaning over to whisper, "The chin-strap on the Mycenaean helmet was in reality much wider."
Of the year's three contributions to the genre, the demand for verisimilitude sat lightest on Troy. Homer's own descriptions of Bronze Age warfare have long been a disappointment to historians: "No one commands or gives orders," Moses Finley scoffs in The World of Odysseus. "Men enter the battle and leave at their own pleasure; they select their individual opponents; they group and regroup for purely personal reasons." In other words, it's the antithesis of modern mechanized warfare and (one would think) tailor-made for the personalized conventions of the big screen. And yet audiences seemed less than rapt.
Was it the filmmakers' failure to exploit the East-versus-West master narrative underlying the entire conflict, as the Lord of the Rings trilogy did so winningly? Wolfgang Petersen's Trojans, led by Peter O'Toole, are imagined as a sensual, superstitious, and regionally unidentifiable folk who prance about in robes of indigo (an intriguing choice, as they're often depicted wearing Tyrian purple). The fighting is delightful, with Brad Pitt's Myrmidon warriors performing an acrobatic version of the phalanx maneuvers developed in the much, much later seventh century BCE. The armor gleams and shines in the Maltese sun. And best of all, the script's many narrative liberties lend the old Homeric story an element of surprise that's long been missing.
There's no such play in The Passion of the Christ, in which, it hardly needs pointing out, soldiers and Easterners alike come off much less sympathetically. Partly this is dictated by its genre: unlike the other varieties of sword-and-sandals film, Bible pictures are generally barred from celebrating ancient military might. In the unsubtle hands of Mel Gibson, though, the anti-imperialist bent is anything but gratuitous.
The usual meticulous care with Roman helmetry is taken, as well as a creative Persian approach to the armor worn by the Hebrew temple guards. The script's rendering into Latin, Hebrew, and Aramaic is of a heroic painstakingness not seen since the mid-'60s heyday of Esperanto cinema. To the Arabophone viewer, or anyone with a year or two of Hebrew school, it presents an affrontingly intimate blend of phonemes and racial stereotypes: as always, Levantine village manners are aped as a substitute for biblical ones, and in the film's casting, physiognomy appears to have been the paramount concern. When the temple elders connive and mock in all their glinting finery, the caricature is too familiar to be transporting. If nothing else, all viewers can agree The Passion is of no escapist value whatsoever.
Alexander is at once the most sophisticated and least memorable of the year's sword-and-sandal offerings. Oliver Stone, known because of his Conan the Barbarian script as a past master of sword and sandals, far outdoes the praises of Plutarch in giving us Alexander the selfless liberator of Eastern masses from their hazily envisioned oppressors, but cannot save his film from the fatally episodic and repetitive life of its subject. Although Alexander's exploits will bring our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to the mind of even the most unreflective audience member, the film's polemical thrust is as oddly inconclusive as its elephant warfare. The film's only clear victor is Alexander's mother, played by Angelina Jolie, who, out of all three films, turns in the only "bewitching temptress" performance worth mentioning. Maybe her role will lead some more daring filmmaker to a revival of the Salome story, or perhaps the tale of Yemen's queen of Sheba. But it's sadly doubtful that the box office fortunes of Troy and Alexander will be inspiring a new Greco-Roman extravaganza anytime soon.
::Wednesday, December 29, 2004 6:41:58 AM::
~ More Useful Firefox Extensions
A couple of weeks ago, I was among the millions raving about the advantages of Firefox, especially the fact that it has a pile of extensions being created for it which are extremely useful. In addition to the ones mentioned in my original post, I should make note of a couple of others which will likely be of great use to several folks out there. First is an item which is definitely necessary if you have a large library of links and are repeatedly feeling that frustration/ire you get when an erstwhile great page comes up 404 -- Wayback, as its name suggests, will take you from the page you are on to the version of the page at web.archive.org (a.k.a. 'the Wayback machine'). Somewhat similar is GCache, which allows you to check the version of the page you're browsing in Google's cache (useful if you need to know how the page has changed). Last, and certainly not least by any means, is something called Scrapbook, which makes it very easy to save webpages and manage them in your sidebar -- very useful if you're the type who saves 'newsclippings' from the web.
::Wednesday, December 29, 2004 6:38:23 AM::
~ 'Amazon Women' Update
Discovery News has a feature on that purported 'Amazons-in-the-Roman-army-burial' discovery which adds a few details which might be of interest, inter alia:
Mike Pitts, editor of British Archaeology and the author of a book on Stonehenge entitled Hengeworld, told Discovery News that although all of the excavated bones and remains had been cremated, archaeologists from Barbican Research Associates in England were able to identify certain items based on tiny intact fragments.
Based on these fragments, the first cremated woman died between the ages of 20 and 40, and was interred with red pottery, bone veneer, and a sword scabbard, which would have served as a protective sheath for the sword's blade. The veneer probably once decorated the outside of a box, and was typically a luxury item reserved for elite individuals.
The second woman was cremated between the ages of 21 and 45, and was found with a sword scabbard and bone veneer. She was also found with pieces of ivory and a silver bowl. Again, these were items associated with individuals of elite stature.
He told Discovery News, "If two men had been found next to the horses, no one would question that these individuals were cavalrymen. On the face of it, the evidence is quite convincing that these women served as members of the Roman cavalry, and they may very well have been Amazons."
The Greek historian Herodotus (484-430/420 B.C.) and the Greek epic poet Homer both wrote about Amazon women. Herodotus described them as "killers of men" and Homer associated them with the word "antianeira," which means "those who fight like men."
According to Greek legend, the Amazons formed their own independent kingdom under the rule of Queen Hippolyta, which means "she who lets her horses loose." The women supposedly fought on horseback with swords, bows and arrows, and double-sided axes. Mythology links them to the reign of Alexander the Great and to the armies of Pompey.
Another recent excavation may provide additional evidence for their existence. At a burial mound at Pokrovka in Russia, archaeologists unearthed the 2,500-year-old remains of women dressed in full battle regalia. Weapons rested alongside their bones. One female skeleton had permanently bowed legs, which researchers believe suggests that she spent much of her life on horseback. Another woman found at the site, who may have died in battle, was found with an arrowhead lodged in her chest.
For now, it remains unclear how the Roman warriors found at Cumbria met their final end before they were cremated. [the whole thing]
::Wednesday, December 29, 2004 6:13:55 AM::
~ Hiring? Looking for a Job?
With folks about to head off to the APA and the annual meat market of job interviews and the like, a piece in the Chronicle about hiring (written from the perspective of someone in the MLA, but likely applicable to most academic organizations) should be of interest to both 'hirers' and 'hirees' (potential and otherwise) ... here's the incipit:
Once again, the academic hiring season is upon us. In colleges and universities across the land, attention has shifted from major-league baseball to the Modern Language Association job list and similar compilations in other disciplines. Hiring committees again this year will have embarked on the process with high hopes; but we'll doubtless get it wrong, albeit with the best of intentions -- sometimes making professional decisions on (unconfessed or unrecognized) narrowly personal grounds and sometimes unaccountably picking the right guy or gal for all the wrong reasons. [the whole thing]
::Wednesday, December 29, 2004 6:06:02 AM::
~ We're Number 8 ... and 11!
There's a piece making the rounds about a survey done by the Modern Languages Association in regards to students' choices when they are choosing foreign languages. Although the focus of the article is on the comparatively low popularity of Arabic, in passing it notes:
In 2002, classes in Arabic attracted 10,584 students - just 0.8 percent of students studying another language.
Although Arabic beat out Portuguese (0.6 percent of the students) and Korean (0.4 percent), it finished far behind first-place Spanish (746,267 students, or 53.4 percent) and second-place French (201,979 students, or 14.5 percent).
The rest of the list: German (6.5 percent), Italian (4.6), American Sign Language (4.4), Japanese (3.7), Chinese (2.4), Latin (2.1), Russian (1.7), modern or ancient Hebrew, (1.6) and ancient Greek (1.5). [the whole thing]
::Wednesday, December 29, 2004 6:01:52 AM::
~ AWOTV: On TV Today
8.00 p.m. |DCIVC| Mystery of the Persian Mummy
8.00 p.m. |HINT| Athens: Western Splendor
Discover why Athens became the preeminent city during the Golden Age of Greece on this virtual tour of the cradle of Western civilization. Travel back to the time of Pericles, the noble statesman who led the revolution that touched all fields of knowledge. We visit the amphitheaters that were home to the famous tragedies of the day, tour the site of the ancient Olympic Games, and see the ornate temples of the Gods, including a bird's eye view of the architectural masterpiece of its day--the Acropolis.
8.30 p.m. |HINT| A Place to Call Eturia
Go on a journey to the ancient cities Volterra, Populonia, and Cervetari, and see why Etruscan civilization was famous for its extravagant wealth, fine ceramics, handicrafts, and bustling trade, and how it was all lost in battles with the Greek colonies in southern Italy. Experience the cutting edge of archaeological exploration as we take viewers on a virtual tour of these ancient sites.
9.00 p.m. |DCIVC| Ancient Evidence: Peter: Jesus' Fisherman
HINT = History International
DCIVC = Discovery Civilization (Canada)
::Wednesday, December 29, 2004 5:54:13 AM::