BMCR 2001.12.13

Classical Myth and Culture in the Cinema (2nd ed.)

, Classical myth & culture in the cinema. Classics and cinema.. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001. 1 online resource (ix, 350 pages) : illustrations. ISBN 9780195351569. $24.95.

The immense success of Ridley Scott’s Gladiator in winning several academy awards demonstrates the public interest in the ancient world as well as the pervasive influence of antiquity on the medium of film. Since the early days of cinema and television hundreds of films have been produced with either ancient themes or thematic connections with antiquity. Beside the interest in film criticism, the examination of the relations of ancient myths to the modern myths of popular movies from a classical perspective is on the rise. The first important work on classics and cinema was Jon Solomon’s The Ancient World in the Cinema (New York 1978, second, revised edition 2001), an encyclopedic study of various classical topics in film. This was followed by several rewarding studies and articles on classical themes like Mary McDonald’s Euripides in Cinema: The Heart Made Visible (Philadelphia 1983), Greek Tragedy in Film by Kenneth McKinnon (Rutherford 1986) and Maria Wyke’s Projecting the Past. Ancient Rome, Cinema and History (London 1997), which includes four detailed case studies (Spartacus, Cleopatra, Nero, Pompeii). Among useful Film Studies of the ancient world in the cinema are Derek Elley’s Epic Films. Myth and History (London 1984) and Gary A. Smith’s encyclopedic Epic Film. Casts, Credits and Commentary on over 250 Historical Spectacle Movies (1991). The recently published Classical Myth and Culture in the Cinema, a collection of 15 essays, is the revised edition of Martin Winkler’s Classics and Cinema (Lewisburg 1991), one of the most striking interpretative studies of cinematic texts. Two of the original essays (by Frederick Ahl and Kristina M. Passman) have been removed from the collection and four new contributions (by Hanna Roisman, Fred Mench, Janice F. Siegel, and Martin Winkler’s essay on Star Wars) added. In his valuable and well-structured introduction Martin M. Winkler describes the theoretical background and the history of Film Philology.

The first essay, Erling B. Holtsmark’s “The Katabasis Theme in Modern Cinema,” is a typological study of a katabatic hero’s journey into the dark and back again. After a clear description of the mythic katabasis-pattern, Holtsmark focuses on the katabasis-theme as a narrative motif in movies of certain, non-classical genres: western ( 1000 Rifles, The Wild Bunch, The Professionals, Long Riders, Shane, Ulzana’s Raid), thriller ( Narrow Margin, Murder at 1600, Absolute Power), science-fiction ( Cherry 2000, Johnny Mnemonic, Conflict of Interest), contemporary drama ( Beyond Rangoon, Pure Country) and Vietnam war films ( Platoon, Full Metal Jacket, Apocalypse Now). These movies all show the mythic pattern of a hero’s “descent” into a strange and fiendish world to obtain something or rescue someone, regularly accompanied by a Hermes or Charon character. After a kind of catharsis the heroes ascend from hell with new-found wealth. Holtsmark concludes that “the thematic displacement of katabasis themes shifts onto the narrative the power of a death tale, or part of a death tale, and hence lends to it a certain urgency and import beyond the surface structure of the story presented” (49).

The second essay is Hanna M. Roisman’s “Verbal Odysseus: Narrative Strategy in the Odyssey and in The Usual Suspects“. First of all, Roisman shows that “a story or claim is convincing only within its specific context, and that there is no point in telling the objective truth if the hearer cannot accept or understand it” (52) according to the Aristotelian observation “what is convincing is what one can be convinced by” (Aristotle, Rhetoric 1356b38). To demonstrate the timeless validity of this rhetorical principle, she discusses two examples, arguing that the fantastic adventures told by Odysseus in the Phaeacian episode of Homer’s Odyssey (books 6-12) are poetic fictions: Odysseus reinvents himself as a man of destructive potential by telling lies abouts gods and monsters within his hearer’s cultural truths (the Cyclopes or Goat Island) to obtain the Phaeacians’ assistance in getting home. Thereafter Roisman goes on to discuss Bryan Singer’s The Usual Suspects : Keyser Soze, an international master criminal is the only unharmed surviver of a bloodbath. In the following interrogation by a U.S. customs agent, Soze reinvents himself as a small-time criminal and lays the blame for the explosion on a crooked ex-cop, thereby confirming his opposite’s expectations and preconceptions. The protagonists both of the classical and the modern story are creating myths to ensure their own safety. Roisman concludes that the impossibility of knowing the real truth within is the central theme of The Usual Suspects while in the Odyssey it “appears to be taken for granted” (71).

There follows a three-part segment about Greek director Michael Cacoyannis’ adaptions of tragedies by Euripides. The first part is an interview with Michael Cacoyannis and his famous actress Irene Papas about their film versions of Euripides. The interview, conducted by Marianne McDonald, appears to have been abriged from the first edition of this collection, Classics and Cinema, and is closely connected with the second part, Marianne McDonald’s “Eye of the Camera, Eye of the Victim: Iphigenia by Euripides and Cacoyannis”, a revised version of her former essay “Cacoyannis’s and Euripides’ Iphigenia: The Dialectic of Power”. McDonald compares Cacoyannis’ Iphigenia to Euripides’ play, arguing that “Euripides and Cacoyannis are closely allied in spirit with their powerful criticism of war and the corruption of martial, religious, and political leaders” (92). Both are contrasting corrupt male heroes with women of virtue. Cacoyannis’ close-ups of eyes, the windows of the soul, let the audience share the protagonists’ perspective. In that way eyes and close-up of eyes “convey the major issues of the film” (99). A photo essay consisting of 15 stills from Iphigenia chosen by Michael Cacoyannis is juxtaposed to McDonald’s essay and the interview as a visual accompaniment.

Martin M. Winkler’s well-structured essay “Tragic Features in John Ford’s The Searchers” is an excellent analysis of the Aristotelian features of tragedy in John Ford’s The Searchers. According to Aristotle’s discussions Winkler shows parallels between the social, political, and moral reflections in ancient Greek tragedy and the hero myths of the West and describes the tragic and moral ambiguous figure of the Westerner as “a modern reincarnation of the archetypal mythic and tragic hero” (122). The pivotal figure in Winkler’s study is the very complex character of Ethan Edwards, the protagonist of The Searchers. Ethan is searching for the Indian chief Scar who abducted and killed his brother and family. Winkler shows in detail how this victim of circumstances becomes a savage avenger seething wih hatred. Therefore Winkler refers to the parallels between Ethan’s defiling of the enemies’ corpse (blinding and scalping) and Achilles’ acts in the Iliad. In that way Ethan, like a protagonist of ancient Greek tragedy, is both presented as guilty and innocent. After his final act of cruelty to his antagonist Scar, Ethan is at least saved from falling into savagery and inhumanity but remains a transitional figure. Winkler comes to the conclusion that “Ford makes powerful use of mythic and dramatic archetypes and successfully translates them into a modern medium” (147).

Another typological study of a modern, cinematic tragedy is Mary-Kay Gamel’s “An American Tragedy: Chinatown”, combining thematic and genre criticism. The intention of her precise analysis of Roman Polanski’s film noir is not to demonstrate conscious imitation or influence of Aristotelian features but to show that the “classical” elements in the film “most clearly establish its connections to the historical, political, and aesthetic circumstances of its own production” (161). Therefore she gives only a formal and thematic comparison between ancient Greek tragedy and the features of Chinatown (e.g. the parallels between Aristotle’s principles and Polanski’s story, the protagonist Jack Gittes as an Oedipus figure, the motifs of incest and blinding). Then, by making use of the theoretical models of Hans Robert Jauss and Fredric Jameson, Gamel shows the film’s dialectical and complex juxtaposition of the 30’s and the 70’s, present and past, and concludes that tragedy is located in history and transcends particular individuals and societies by combining history with myth.

In the first part of “Tricksters and Typists: 9 to 5 as an Aristophanic Comedy” James R. Baron shows parallels between 9 to 5 and the typical features of Old Greek Comedy. Then he compares the movie with Aristophanes’ Lysistrata. Even the leading characters of 9 to 5 are comparible to stereotypes of ancient comedy and correspond to the heroines of Lysistrata (Violet Newstead/Lily Tomlin = Lysistrata, Judy Bernly/Jane Fonda = Myrrhine, Doralee Rhodes/Dolly Parton = Lampito). Although Baron does not insist on direct influence, he remarks that “the Aristophanic hero abandons all principles and breaks down almost all barriers or inhibitions, whether from social taboos or law, even though the revolt usually arises from and for a good cause” (190-191). In that way, 9 to 5 offers “the thrill of a modern Aristophanic comedy” (190).

J. K. Newman’s essay, “Ancient Poetics and Eisenstein’s Films”, is divided into three parts. The first starts with an analysis of cinematic principles in classical narrative passages, i.e. the beginning of the Iliad, Pindar’s First Nemean and Fourth Pythian Ode. Newman argues that even the ancient writers needed the imagination of their audience to add their own thoughts in order to abbreviate the subject-matter. In the second part Newman focuses on the film director and theorist Sergei Eisenstein, who used many terms of classical rhetoric to describe cinema. Therefore he compares several aspects of Eisenstein’s theory and practice with Aristotle’s Poetics: Both offer “a few significant details after the principle that a part may stand for the whole, [so that] viewers or listeners will be drawn into working these details into a total picture” (211). In the third part he describes theatrical imagination in Ennius’ Alexander and Alcmaeon and concludes that “the tension generated by conflicting times and truths produces a kind of theater that foreshadows the cinema” (217) and again refers to Eisenstein’s systematic and poetic theories.

In the following essay, “Film Sense in the Aeneid“, first published in Arion, 8 (1969), 360-397, Fred Mench discusses cinematic senses in selected parts of Virgil’s Aeneid in detail ( Aeneid 4. 68-93, 10. 246-290, 12. 938-52). He describes Virgil’s use of visual techniques: montage of real and unreal, variation of viewing angle, alternation of close-ups and distance shot takes, and points out that “Virgil is much closer to being a film director than a painter or a dramatist” (232). Moreover Mench not only refers to Eisenstein and Milton’s Paradise Lost but also compares Virgil’s techniques of a film director with the works of Kurosawa and Bergman. His juxtaposition of the ancient poet to the modern filmmakers leads to the conclusion that “the flexibility that we associate with the cinema is a hallmark of Virgil’s epic” (232).

Janice F. Siegel’s “Peter Greenaway’s The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover : A Cockney Procne” is a superb and sharp-witted analysis of Greenaway’s controversial movie about cannibalism as a taboo subject. Siegel reveals close connections and evident similarities between the movie and the mythological tale of Philomela and Procne (Ovid, Metamorphoses 6.424-674), although she does not argue for direct influence. Both stories have the similar idea that “a cannibal feast is a particularly justified recompense for the behaviour of the husband toward the wife” (254), and each of the protagonists corresponds to a figure of the myth (Richard, the cook = Itys, Albert, the thief = Tereus, Georgina, his wife = Procne, Michael, her lover = Philomela). In each case the nature of the husband’s crime dictates the nature of his punishment, “facilitated by the one cooked or by the cook himself, who provides either the goods (Itys) or services (Richard) necessary for the wife to effect her revenge” (236). Siegel also shows several thematic parallels in detail like the husband’s insatiability (the thief’s huge appetite contrasts Tereus’ insatiable lust) and concludes with the most striking difference: While Philomela and Procne are marked as killers and undergo a metamorphosis for the worse, Greenaway’s avengers manage to change and survive justified.

The late J. P. Sullivan argues in “The Social Ambience of Petronius’ Satyricon and Fellini’s Satyricon” that Fellini was justified in his controversial but creative transformation of Petronius’s novel. Because of the fragmentary state of the Satyricon Fellini imported scenes and figures from several ancient sources (e. g. Apuleius, Martial, Dio Cassius) to fill in the lacunae. The atmosphere of Fellini Satyricon is strange and exotic but never modern. Sullivan observes that, like Petronius, Fellini shows the perversities of Neronian society with its luxury and decadence through a moralist’s eye and concludes that this deconstruction of Petronius’ novel is rather a presentation than an interpretation of Petronius, that “now becomes part of the Satyricon’s literary history and of its meaning for the modern reader” (271).

In the following essay, Martin M. Winkler has a close look at connections and relations between ” Star Wars and the Roman Empire”. Although some similarities between George Lucas’ trilogy and the history of ancient Rome are obvious, Winkler achieves a more profound analysis. In the first part he compares the society and the history of Imperial Rome with the evil empire of Star Wars : There are identical political terms and titles like empire, senate or emperor and similar names (the name of Governor Tarkin in “Star Wars” may refer to Roman king Tarquinius Superbus); moreover the galactic empire has overthrown an earlier republic and its governing senate. Therefore Winkler describes the galactic empire as an Imperium Romanum Redivivum, that “conforms to the negative view of Imperial Rome generally present in popular culture” (273). In the second part he reveals a close relationship between the protagonists and antagonists of Star Wars and Anthony Mann’s The Fall of the Roman Empire. Winkler compares Obi-Wan Kenobi with Mann’s Marcus Aurelius and discovers a similar appearance (both are played by Alec Guinness, and even wear similar cloaks) similar philosophical teachings, a similar self-sacrifice, and even similar words and speeches. While The Fall of the Roman Empire presents “the change of a good empire into a bad and doomed one; the Star Wars trilogy presents the overthrow of an evil empire and the restoration of liberty” (285).

Peter W. Rose’s “Teaching Classical Myth and Confronting Contemporary Myths” is a controversial but rich and unique essay on the use of contemporary film in teaching Greek mythology. In a brief introduction Rose argues for a progressive and open-minded pedagogical practice. Then he describes his own practice of teaching Greek myth using popular culture: In the first half of a myth course, he presents the major stories of Greek mythology according to Edward Tripp’s Handbook of Mythology“in as detailed and interpretively neutral a manner as possible” (301) and three different approaches to myth: psychoanalytic (Freud, Philip Slater), structuralist (Levi-Strauss), political and historical approaches (Malinowski, Marx). In the second half of his course he shows four different films about or covering myth ( Clash of the Titans, Jason and the Argonauts, Superman, and Return of the Jedi), discusses mythological contaminations of the films and shows connections with other myths that seem relevant to an interpretation of the meaning of the myth. The intention of Rose’s far-reaching approach focusing on psychological and sociological aspects is to have his students “explore the ideological implications of the most blatant omissions and additions in the film with a view to gaining some historical perspective on their own society’s cultural production by contrasting it with that of ancient Greece” (307), engaging them “in critical dialogue with the received conglomerate of ideas, beliefs, and ideological practices” (318) of past and present.

In the last essay of the collection, “The Sounds of Cinematic Antiquity”, Jon Solomon gives an unusual and valuable overview of the rediscovery of ancient music and its adaption for the big screen. Solomon distinguishes between motion picture soundtracks composed in a grand romantic mood of epic proportions (e.g. Dimitri Tiomkin), “unfamiliar and synthesized sounds produced electronically” (332) to create an atmosphere outside of time (Nino Rota’s score for Fellini’s Satyricon) and attempts at accurately recreating an ancient sound (e.g. Georges Auric and Miklos Rozsa). He focuses on Rozsa’s music of Quo vadis and its synthesis of authentic texts and instruments (the adaption of melodies from the brief fragments of ancient music, the use of Pythagorean harmonies and the reconstruction of ancient instruments like lyres, auloi or citharae) with “melodic lines, harmonies, and orchestrations suitable to modern ears” (329). Though Rozsa’s achievements became the norm of the genre and were often imitated or adapted, Solomon shows that even less authentic scores (e.g. Spartacus, Cleopatra or Clash of the Titans) “reflect the atmosphere and intended emotional stimuli to these films” (335) and concludes persuasively that authenticity rather than “the ability to provoke martial, pious, and romantic responses in the viewer-listener” (337) makes the score of a history spectacle movie outstanding.

Classical Myth and Culture in the Cinema is a rewarding and engaging collection of varied essays on classics and cinema covering discussions of common patterns and motifs in non-classical films as well as the interpretation of an ancient text from the perspective of cinema (Mench) and film criticism. Rose’s essay is especially recommended for its interdisciplinary approaches to antiquity (psychoanalytic, structuralist, political and historical). This informative collection is helpful for both classicists with an interest in film philology and film criticism and for film-literate readers with an interest in classical themes, inducing them to watch a particular film again and to think anew about it. There is just one thing missing: A filmography of the films mentioned and a bibliography of the articles and books cited would have been useful and appreciated.