Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2009.08.43
Gideon Nisbet, Ancient Greece in Film and Popular Culture. Greece and Rome live. Exeter: Bristol Phoenix Press, 2008. Pp. xiv, 188. ISBN 9781904675785. $24.95.
Reviewed by Seán Easton, Gustavus Adolphus College (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Word count: 1521 words
[Table of contents at the end of the review]
Gideon Nisbet confronts a specific challenge in the second edition of Ancient Greece in Film and Popular Culture: how to explain the immense popular success of 300 in light of the first edition's argument that Greece proved a failure in its pop culture receptions. He addresses this question in an excellent new chapter, which together with an updated bibliography mark the principal changes of the new edition. The fact that the added chapter snaps neatly into place is a testament to both the breadth of the first edition, which examined the graphic novel 300, and the relevance of its methodology to the diverse nature of current media and popular culture. In what follows, I address only the first edition material most relevant to the new chapter. Readers will wish to consult Joanna Paul's BMCR review of the first edition for a fuller consideration of its contents (BMCR 2008.02.31).
The second edition appears at a moment when how and what to discuss in the way of Classics and cinema is much at issue. Nisbet's book differs in critical emphasis from other scholarly forays into the intersections of ancient Greece, media, and pop culture, such as Arthur Pomeroy's Then It Was Destroyed by the Volcano: The Ancient World in Film and on Television (Duckworth 2008) and Martin Winkler's Cinema and Classical Texts: Apollo's New Light (Cambridge University Press 2009).1 This difference is felt in three primary areas: Nisbet's exclusive attention to popular rather than high culture receptions with a critical emphasis on their entertainment value; his focus on how popular ideas and anxieties about ancient Greece shape these receptions; and his concern for participatory fan culture, in which the consumers of pop culture engage with and shape its products. For example, in the first edition's account of the preproduction trials of competing Alexander projects (as well as an unrealized Hannibal project), Nisbet illustrates the way that the contemporary media landscape of the 1990's and 2000's -- populated by blogs, websites, and the discussion threads of the Internet Movie Database (IMDb) -- allowed a wide array of interested parties to engage with these still notional films.
Avowing that academics are neither neutral nor outside observers in this area, Nisbet adopts the subjective stance of a scholar-fan toward his material. He focuses less on the cultural artifact itself (i.e. the film, graphic novel, etc.) than on the viability of its representations of ancient Greece as templates for further receptions. For example, Nisbet argues in his first edition that Troy, hobbled by its director's failure to emerge from the habits of the cinematic past, falls short as a popular reception of antiquity because it offers no new vision of the Greek hero(ine) and his/her world. It should be noted that Troy's nearly 500 million dollars in ticket sales worldwide certainly sustains other perspectives on its popular culture significance, but the fact that in the U.S and U.K. -- the major pop culture coordinates of the book -- it failed to draw even with its 175 million dollar production budget supports the hard questions Nisbet raises.2
Nisbet's 2006 edition was the first book length study to concentrate solely on ancient Greece in its modern popular receptions. Yet, strictly speaking, Nisbet addressed not the place of Greece in pop culture, but why it had yet to claim one; in particular, why Greece proved problematic for filmmakers in ways Rome did not. Even in Greek-themed films, Nisbet argues, Greece itself is often missing in action, a victim of modern anxiety and uncertainty in three areas especially: what Greece should look like on screen; its homoerotic associations; and the implicit connection of Greece to boring ideas as much as or more than thrilling deeds. The strategies devised to compensate for these weaknesses -- e.g. vagueness as to same sex liaisons, borrowing visuals from Roman-themed movies, etc. -- tended rather to confuse the films in which they figured and to perpetuate the problem.
Although anxiety over the sexuality and violence of the ancient Greek heroic male has not kept him from periodic popular success (usually Hercules, or a functional equivalent), it spawned a set of increasingly sclerotic narrative formulae from which, Nisbet argues, recent receptions such as Petersen's Troy and Stone's Alexander have failed to liberate him. The need to re-imagine the Greek hero has indeed resulted in immensely popular receptions, but -- due to the timidity of a conservative film industry overly concerned with respectability -- not in movie theaters. In other media, television's Xena: Warrior Princess replaced the male, unambiguously heterosexual lead with a female heroine and a prominent same-sex subtext, while the cinematically drawn graphic novel 300's vision of hyper-masculine Spartans clad in the bare minimum permitted, however unintentionally, its recuperation as camp.
A reader of Nisbet's first edition may have noted that 300 shares some of the same traits that contributed to the alleged weakness of earlier Greek-themed film ventures: It tries to evade the sexual identity of its protagonists, recycles the 'Herculean muscle' template of the Greek hero, and borrows landscape visuals and distinctive soundtrack elements from a Roman-themed film (Gladiator). Why did these elements not weaken the appeal of 300, as he argues they did for earlier films? Consistent with the first edition's methodological priorities, Nisbet finds answers to this question in the various species of public engagement with the film and the changed conditions of participatory popular culture in 2007. The new chapter (Chapter 4: 'It's Raining Men') is divided into a brief update on the issues with which the first edition ended (the activities of various Macedonian heritage organizations and the state of Alexander projects whose fortunes were unresolved as of 2006), followed by three sections treating, respectively, the response to 300 in the U.S., U.K., and Iran, the role of YouTube, and the film's creative vision of ancient Greece, in which Nisbet directly addresses the success of 300.
All three sections -- each headed by a caption from a YouTube video parody of 300 by Black20 Trailer Park -- underscore the film's susceptibility to different viewing agendas. Noting the coincidence of 300's United Kingdom release date with the Iranian seizure and detention of British naval personnel, Nisbet examines how the film and the international crisis became frames of reference for one another in both official and popular discourse. Nisbet's second section underscores the vast change that popular culture has undergone since 2005's launch of YouTube, the participatory internet forum in which successful videos have the potential to reach viewers in the millions. For example, director Zack Snyder's readiness in interviews to represent the film as a parody of itself -- he described it as "an exercise in 'hysterical weirdness' " (p. 140) -- may have served an ethical escape hatch for those less willing to buy tickets for a pro-Iraq War allegory and as a strategy to defang YouTube video parodies of the film's hyper-masculine swagger. This malleability finds reinforcement in the film's structure, which transfers the third person omniscient captions of Frank Miller's graphic novel to an internal narrator's voiceover, thereby restricting their authority. Nisbet argues, persuasively in my view, that the film's overall success is due to (1) a flexibility that enabled it to gain momentum from the turbulent context of its release; (2) the director's evasion of decisive identification with a specific political message; (3) and his ability to recognize and exploit commercially viable ancient worlds that were already available within popular culture; in particular, those of Xena: Warrior Princess and Gladiator.
As is true of the other interpretive discussions in the book, Nisbet's take on 300 is not the only story to be told, but it is one very much worth reading. It is an important way to think about a film and one I found useful especially in thinking through the many apolitical 'it's just a movie' reactions to 300 that I have heard from students. Ancient Greece in Film and Popular Culture is aimed at a popular audience, favors large ideas, and seeks to provoke questions rather than settle them. It has a useful glossary of important terms (e.g. slash fiction, mise-en-sce\ne, etc.), an annotated bibliography, and is without notes. It is well suited to sparking discussion among undergraduates as well as introducing new perspectives to scholars. Course logistics permitting, I think it would be especially useful in combination with other recent studies as a stimulating introduction to the current scholarly conversation on Classics, media, and popular culture.
U.S. undergraduate students may stumble over some British points of reference (what Radio One is, what a description of Petersen's Troy as "Glastonbury minus the mud" might mean, etc.), but not so much so that the thread of the argument would be lost. As to the editing, actress Jolene Blalock's surname is misspelled Blaylock (p. 62) and director Zack Snyder's surname is misspelled "Synder" three times (pp. 149-150).
Table of Contents Preface: The Dog in the Night-time Acknowledgements A Note on Terminology 1 Socrates' Excellent Adventure 2 Mythconceptions 3 Wars of the Successors 4 2007: It's Raining Men Epilogue: Radio Gaga Glossary Suggestions for Further Reading (and Viewing) Index
1. I have been unable to obtain Classics for All: Reworking Classics in Mass Culture (Lowe and Shahabudin, eds., Cambridge Scholars Press 2009) prior to writing this review.
2. Box office information drawn from www.boxofficemojo.com.