BMCR 2021.04.07

Ovid on screen: a montage of attractions

, Ovid on screen: a montage of attractions. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2020. Pp. xxi, 444; 24 p. of plates. ISBN 9781108485401. $135.00.


In 1984, I decided to show the original Clash of the Titans (1981) in a mythology class I was teaching. When it came time to discuss the film, I realized that the only thing I could do was note the differences between the myth and the movie. It was an insightful moment of humility. Zooming ahead to the early 1990s, after considerable preparation I created a class on classical mythology in film. That is when I first encountered Martin Winkler. Thanks to his first book, Classics and Cinema (Bucknell University Press, 1991), a collection of diverse essays that he edited and that I had the good fortune to review (BMCR 1992.04.15), not only did I enhance my ability to examine and discuss films on mythological topics in my class, but in time I published several articles on the topic inspired by this publication. Over the years, Winkler has continued to write and edit numerous books and papers on classical antiquity in films, establishing himself as one of the world’s premiere scholars in cinematic reception studies. His latest book, Ovid on Screen: A Montage of Attractions, emerges as his most ambitious and wide-ranging contribution. Winkler’s new study focuses on the influence that Ovidian texts exerted on international motion pictures since the inception of the medium, directly and indirectly.

The monograph features bookended Latin inscriptions: a dedication to his teacher, Fred Ahl, from tiro Martin before the Table of Contents, and a salute to Ovid, Sergei Eisenstein, and Jean Cocteau following the Acknowledgements; on the last page of the text, a sphragis alluding to the final lines of the Metamorphoses, whose first words I quote: Iamque opus exegi, quod nec criticorum ira / nec poterit edax abolere vetustas. Together the inscriptions span Winkler’s career from graduate student to highly accomplished cinema scholar and elegantly reflect the topic of a book about Ovid and film, whose introduction is called a “Fade-In” and conclusion, “End Credits.”

The book is far too expansive and rich for a thorough review within BMCR’s word limit. In short, as Winkler writes in the Prooemium, his intention is to demonstrate the extent to which Ovidian stories, because of their visual quality, are “inherently cinematic” (xix), which explains why we observe their presence in films across time and space. In the first chapter, “Cinemetamorphosis,” Winkler defines the focus of his book as follows: “a retrospective interpretation and appreciation of the complexity of classical texts and images made possible by the invention of the motion-picture camera and projector and their digital heirs,” “an explication filmique des textes et images classiques” (italics his, pp. 4-5). Taking cues from Stephen Hinds’ and Alessandro Barchiesi’s capacious views of intertextuality, Winkler aims to explore “films based on or inspired by Ovid, films connected to his works only loosely, and films that have no direct model in Ovid but exhibit situations, themes or characters that we encounter in his works,” a combination of foreground and background Ovidianism (p. 7). In so doing, he combines “an explication de texte ovidien” and an “explication ovidienne des textes filmiques” (italics his, p. 8). The subtitle of the book, Montages of Attractions, comes from Sergei Eisenstein and reflects both the technique of early cinema and the author’s labyrinthine (his fitting metaphor) organization of the films under consideration, another instantiation of Winklerian metacinema, which continues in the following subchapters: “Preview of Coming Attractions” (pp. 14-18), a helpful summary given the diversity and wealth of material covered in the book, and “Ovidianism on the Cutting-Room Floor” (pp. 18-23).

Since I need to be selective and Winkler both honors and associates Eisenstein and Cocteau closely with Ovid, it seems appropriate to look briefly at his treatment of these two giants of cinema. Among the many things I learned in reading Ovid on Screen, Eisenstein was a huge Disney fan, who even fancifully suggested that Ovid copied the famed animator in his Metamorphoses (p. 28). After examining Eisenstein’s writings, Winkler observes that the former’s focus on “plasmaticness” aligns well with the cinematic quality of Ovid’s poetry. So inspired, Winkler looks at Arachne’s woven tale of Jupiter’s rape of Europa, described at Met. 6.103-26, and teases out its filmic potential: a long shot of the bull on the water, a series of closer shots, the girl calling to her friends (not a silent film), “medium shot on Europa’s head, her mouth open—CUT to close-up on water lapping against her feet and ankles in a low-angle shot with the camera at the level of the water’s surface—CUT to close-up on her face, perhaps with a cry on the soundtrack—CUT to close-up, this time from a higher angle or, even better, from her point of view as she pulls her feet away from the water” (p. 32). Winkler next offers a hypothetical film script of Ovid’s story of Niobe and the death of her children (Met. 6.148-312), including the occasional comment imagining the style of Sergio Leone or Quentin Tarantino (pp. 42-49): “gore galore,” “pumped-up sounds of tearing flesh and hissing blood.” Although Winkler personally disavows the glorification of violence, one can indeed visualize a Tarantino-esque rendition of the myth (p. 46). Apart from any specific association with cinematic production, this hypothetical description of a Niobe film script offers a dynamic approach for reading the Metamorphoses in general—projecting the episodes in one’s mind as a motion picture. I suspect Eisenstein would approve.

In the chapter “Ovidian Returns,” Winkler pays tribute to Jean Cocteau, focusing on The Blood of a Poet (1930, released 1932) and The Testament of Orpheus (1959) in the subchapter entitled “Orpheus’ Return as Cocteau” (pp. 354-63). An explanatory summary of either film would challenge even the most astute and articulate film critic as they are surreal projections of the writer-director’s spectacularly creative mind, and Winkler unsurprisingly does a masterful job. Statues that come alive have critical roles in both films. In the former, a statue awakened by the Poet, à la Pygmalion, instructs him to pass through a mirror, after which he shoots himself in the head; he comes back to life and the scenario repeats itself later. In the latter film, Cocteau himself plays the role of the Poet and encounters characters from his earlier film, Orphée (1950). Passing by a statue of Minerva, the goddess flings her spear into Cocteau’s back and he dies, but coming back to life he states that “poets only pretend to die.” Mystifying to be sure, but Winkler explains that for Cocteau “(t)he body may die, but the artist’s work makes it impossible for an artist or poet to die. Ovid said much the same at the end of the Metamorphoses” (p. 357). The Testament of Orpheus ends with the completion of a drawing by Cocteau of Orpheus with his lyre, similar to the image that graces the front of the book jacket, a detail of the poster advertising the film. It is clear, as Winkler notes, that Orpheus was a major source of inspiration for Cocteau as a poet, homosexual and visitor of the underworld: “If Cocteau was homo Orphicus – Orphic Man – he was also homo Ovidianus” (p. 362). I agree, and would add that, like Cocteau, Ovid, the elegiac poet at the circus in Amores (3.2) and the didactic poet likewise in Ars Amatoria (1.135-70), had a cameo appearance in a later literary production: Apollo in pursuit of Daphne in the Metamorphoses (1.452-567) as revealed in the shared obsession with stylish hair and shapely legs.

Another important figure who acknowledged Ovid’s cinematic influence in the early years of motion pictures was the poet, dramatist, and novelist Gabriele D’Annunzio. Winkler aptly cites an unpublished essay by D’Annunzio that is worth quoting at length: “Several years ago, in Milan, I was attracted by a new invention that seemed to me capable of promoting a new aesthetic of movement … I thought that from the film camera … a delightful art could be born, one whose essential element was the ‘wondrous.’ Ovid’s Metamorphoses! There you have a true subject for the camera! Technically, there is no limit to the representation of marvels or dreams. I wanted to experiment with the story of Daphne.” He went on to say: “I never stop thinking of Daphne’s delicate arm, changed into a leafy branch. The true and unique virtue of the Film Camera is metamorphosis …; and I tell you that Ovid is its poet. Sooner or later the poetry of the Metamorphoses will enchant the masses that are today delighted by such indecent buffooneries.” According to Winkler, D’Annunzio saw Ovid as “a precursor of the cinema” (pp. 92-93). The subchapter, “Daphne’s Delicate Arm,” demonstrates clearly the influence that D’Annunzio had on the history of film following his discovery of Ovid’s cinematic qualities.

In Ovid on Screen, Winkler not only reveals the direct and indirect influence that Ovid exerted on the writing and filming of metamorphic stories that encompass labyrinths, Pygmalions, lycanthropy, seduction, Pythagoreanism, katabasis and more, but he also provides a discursive history of cinema, discussing a host of films along the way. Sometimes this takes the form of brief annotated catalogs of films (e.g., pp. 177-78, 254-60, 304-05, 336-37), whose grouping by topic well illustrates their shared Ovidian themes. The predominantly scholarly tone is occasionally lightened by droll off-the-cuff comments (e.g., “Trust a French filmmaker to inject both an adulterous affair and an allusion to the death of Socrates, the subject of a famous painting by Jacques-Louis David, into the original tale. Vive le cinema!,” p. 176). Numerous apposite illustrations assist in visualizing and more easily following descriptions of complicated films. The bibliography (pp. 391-437) is massive and indicative of Winkler’s broad and deep reading in both Classical and cinematic scholarship. One area of the book I feel could have used more attention is the General Index (pp. 440-44). Not all of the films mentioned within the text are listed. Readers would have benefitted from a separate index of every film discussed and named, even those cited only in passing, and a more inclusive index for general topics. The former would graphically illustrate the astounding breadth of Winkler’s knowledge of film history and, practically speaking, give readers the opportunity to find discussion or mention of those films within the book; the latter might include, for example, important concepts such as “intertextuality” or “plasmaticness” or artists such as Salvador Dali or Pablo Picasso, whose influence on Cocteau is duly noted.

As Winkler has demonstrated throughout this learned study, “Ovidian metamorphosis is alive and well in our media because the idea is timeless” (p. 202). This is an engaging and also enjoyable book from which I have learned much. No critical ire here. I have only one suggestion: don’t wait for the movie!