Screening History: “Troy: Fall of a City” (2018) and the Critique of Epic Masculinity

The story of the Trojan War has been told countless times in numerous forms: poetry, literature, film and, of course, television. Moving, tragic, and exhilarating, this narrative has produced works of great genius and lasting power (The Iliad) but also, unfortunately, some rather lackluster interpretations (Troy). Now, we have Troy: Fall of a City, a joint venture between Netflix and the BBC. More family drama than epic per se, the series nevertheless provides a stirring, at times even heart-wrenching, experience of this eternal myth.

One of the first things that struck me about this new retelling of the ancient myth is the impact that the medium of television has on the way in which the story is told. Whereas epic films tend to focus on huge battles, sweeping vistas, and larger-than-life heroes, television dramas focus more on personal relationships that nevertheless have enormous political and historical consequences. Thus it is that Fall of a City, while populated by the requisite heroes of antiquity–Agamemnon, Menelaus, Hector, Priam, Paris, Helen, Hecuba–manages to paint them as individuals with well-rounded personalities rather than archetypes. These are deeply-flawed human beings caught up in events and emotions that they cannot control but which will have a momentous impact on their world.

Somewhat surprisingly, it is Paris who is the center of the narrative. Portrayed by a strikingly handsome Louis T. Hunter, the Trojan prince raised by shepherds is a far more charismatic, and heroic, character than he traditionally appears in modern interpretations. True, he is quite pretty, but it is a more traditionally “masculine” sort than, say, Orlando Bloom, who brought a signature softness to the role. As a result, Troy paints this Paris (who it prefers to refer to as Alexander) in a more martial light. Far from sheltering under Hector’s blazing military glory, Alexander forges his own destiny, even stepping into his brother’s shoes when the former meets his agonizing death at the hands of Achilles.

Though Paris commands most of the attention, the series also adeptly fleshes out the struggles, both physical and emotional, of the other major players in this drama. What’s more, it imbues them with a deeply resonant emotional impact, so that the deaths that we know are coming–and, of course, the inevitable fall of Troy itself–are incredibly wrenching. If you don’t shed tears when Hector meets his fate at the hands of Achilles, then I don’t know what to tell you.

Because it has more running time through which to work, Troy reveals the competing and yet mutually-reinforcing causes of antiquity’s most famous conflict. While of course Paris’s taking of Helen (here portrayed as willing on her part), is the stark to the tinder, it is made clear that there have long been resentments and jealousies on the part of the Greeks, particularly Agamemnon. And, of course, there are also the gods, who periodically interfere with the affairs of humans, often to work through their own contentious relationships.

If this series proves anything, it’s that sometimes television is better at bringing out the fundamentally human drama at the heart of the ancient stories. Eight hours of running time allows us a significantly greater investment in these characters and their relationships, whether that be the psychologically complex Helen (a refreshing change), the deeply loving relationship between Hector and Andromache, or the tempestuous (but physical and sexual) relationship between Achilles and Patroclus. And, while we’re at it, let me just say how absolutely thrilled I was to see an Achilles and Patroclus depicted as lovers rather than as “cousins” or some other, equally infuriating euphemism.

In fact, I would go so far as to say that Troy works more in the idiom of the tragic than the epic, at least as these have taken shape within modern media. These are characters determined to make the best decisions that they can, even though each are condemned to follow a path they cannot shape to their own ends. Even the gods, who supposedly have more power than their mortal counterparts, seem unable to affect the course of the prophecy that has already foretold the doom of both Paris and his city.

Furthermore, Troy strips away the patina of legitimacy that typically adheres to Greek epic heroes, so that although Agamemnon, Menelaus, and even Achilles and Odysseus all exhibit exactly the types of behaviour that we have come to expect from our epic heroes, their violence remains coded as deeply sociopathic. Even Odysseus, arguably the most sympathetic of the Greek heroes, lies and deceives in the service of what he deems a higher purpose, even as he recognizes that Agamemnon and Menelaus are the worst that Greece can produce. Their lies are largely for their own gain, regardless of the cost to others. Achilles is ultimately deceived by his fellow Greeks into launching an all-out assault on the Trojans, an action which leads almost directly to his death at the hands of Paris.

As such, Troy is also a critique of the deeply violent and aggressive epic masculinity that has characterized epic films since at least Gladiator, a critique I’ve noticed in a number of ancient world films produced in the last couple of years. This ambiguity about the value and social function of epic heroism punctures even the end of the film, for while the Greeks have emerged victorious, theirs is a pyrrhic victory, a fact rendered explicit by Odysseus’ craggy, sad visage staring off into the distance at the very end. Any savvy viewer knows that almost of all of them will find their lives irrevocably marred by their actions.

All in all, I enjoyed Troy: Fall of a City for what it was, not for what I attempted to force it to be. Rather than holding it up to the standard of the epic–with its grandeur, its battles, its vast scope–I accepted this as a television drama. As such, I think it has much to tell us about how our expectations of epic heroism have changed and how disenchanted we have become with an ancient model that seems curiously out of touch with the modern world.

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Screening the Bible: “Paul, Apostle of Christ” (2018)

Much as I love films that partake of the biblical epic tradition, I have to confess that these days I go into any new quasi-biblical-epic with a fair amount of trepidation. All too often, the attempt by filmmakers to be “devout” ends up hamstringing the films. They become not only spiritually toothless but cinematically boring (and sometimes downright dreadful). Thus, I went into Paul, Apostle of Christ with low expectations and was pleasantly surprised to encounter a passably entertaining film.

In terms of quality, Paul is a more prestigious and polished production than this year’s Samson, which showed definite signs of a shoestring budget and an independent Christian studio. Paul, produced by Affirm Films, an imprint of Sony, clearly had a bigger budget, more talented stars, and better writers. As a result, it just feels different, in the sense that it feels like an actual movie rather than an illustrated bible story (it’s not that there’s anything wrong with the latter; it’s just that I want more bang for my buck if I’m going to go to the cinema).

Though at first I thought it was odd that the film chose to focus on the last years of Paul’s life rather than on, say, his conversion or his travels with Luke, gradually I sort of accepted this is part of the film’s purpose. Paul is far more interested in the spiritual struggle he undergoes in the last days of his life, as he is recounts to Luke his own deeply vexed relationship with Christianity. The nuanced and emotional performance that James Faulkner gives renders Paul a deeply complex figure, one haunted by his earlier persecution of faithful Christians.

These flashbacks are executed with moving grace, and the sequence depicting the stoning of Stephen is particularly emotionally rich and wrenching. It is clear that this incident in particular weighs on Paul’s conscience, as the camera dwells with an almost alarming fetishism on the drops of the martyr’s blood splashing onto the stones. This earlier Paul was also no respecter of age, and it is heavily implied that he was responsible for the death of children. Faulkner’s gravelly voice and raw-boned physique captures, I think, the essence of a profoundly spiritual man struggling with the man that he was and who he attempts to be.

While I’m not Jim Caviezel biggest fan, he does bring a certain noble grace to his portrayal of Luke, and it is fortunately not quite as heavy-handed as his portrayal of Christ. It was actually rather refreshing to see Luke and Paul remembering their time on the road together, traversing the Empire. His evangelist is a man driven by both a sense of duty to the new faith as well as a personal loyalty to his friend and mentor, and Caviezel manages to capture that.

I’m still on the fence about the Roman commander Mauritius (played by Olivier Martinez). The actor is passably good, but the miraculous healing of his daughter is a bit too neatly done. Perhaps if the film had been strictly about his crisis of faith I would have been more convinced, but unfortunately this part of the film feels remarkably underdeveloped and not as emotionally resonant as it should be. This is especially striking, given that one would think that a miraculous healing would be a profoundly spiritual moment in a film, but alas, it rings rather hollow.

This lack of resonance is something that mars most of the film. Unfortunately, because Paul is in prison, Paul the film has to pay attention to several other plot threads that are not nearly as interesting. I’m still not quite sure why it is that so many of the more recent biblically oriented films try to beef up their biblical accounts with exactly the wrong sort of extraneous material. Instead of focusing on the trials and tribulations of Roman Christians (as this film does), I would have rather had more screen time devoted to Paul, perhaps the incidents that led up to his imprisonment by Nero. But, alas, that is not the film we got, and that is unfortunate.

In terms of its formal characteristics, the film relies more on tight framing than the vast, wide-angle shots we typically associate with biblically-oriented films. Nor does it rely on CGI. As a result, the film works much more as a personal drama rather than as an epic, and that is actually a good thing. If you don’t have the ability to make a big-budget spectacle, you should at least play to your strengths, make the most out of your actors and the sets that you can afford. Paul, fortunately doesn’t try to do to much, and that is one of its main strengths.

In essence, Paul is about the struggles of early Christians to persevere, despite the historical forces arrayed against them. The end, which shows the community fleeing Rome, is a strangely ambivalent one. While clearly the Christians will one day rise up to supplant the imperial power that has so ruthlessly persecuted them, the film prefers to project that day of victory into the future. As a result, the ending leaves us as spectators suspended on a moment of perilous possibility.

All in all, Paul was an entertaining film, though a rather staid one. I don’t know that it has much to offer either the truly devout or those who are more earthy in their film tastes, but it does gesture toward the possibility of producing biblical films that are not epic either in scope or in execution. However, if the Hollywood studios continue to try to make these kinds of films–or if Christian filmmakers do–I hope that they at least try to give their audiences some bit of credit. Just as importantly, I hope they turn back to the book that supposedly is the source for their narratives. If they do so, they might just find enough material there to make a film that is entertaining for both devout and secular audiences.

What a true miracle that would be.

Screening Classic Hollywood: “How to Marry a Millionaire” (1953)

Recently, I decided to give the film How to Marry a Millionaire another watch. It’s an important film in Hollywood history and, as a scholar of classic Hollywood, I’m always looking for new ways of thinking about this particularly important period of film history. I’m sure glad I did, because I LOVED this film.

It’s all too easy these days to adopt a camp perspective on classic Hollywood films, to laugh at rather than with them. However, in my view How to Marry is one of those gems that really does age fairly well, and it’s quite easy to find yourself laughing with the jokes. If you don’t find yourself laughing out loud, then I think you might have something wrong with your sense of humour.

Part of what helps the film to age so well, I suspect, is the extent to which it is the women who motivate the action, drive the narrative, and dominate the screen. Oh sure, William Powell puts in a nice turn, but he doesn’t hold a candle to Bacall, Grable, and Monroe. In one particularly revealing sequence, each of the women dreams about their futures with their respective suitors, showing the extent to which each of them is determined to carve out a future on their own terms. You want each of them to find the wealth and emotional happiness that they desire.

Speaking of William Powell…there’s something almost tragic about the fact that Schatze chooses the young, foppish, and not very charismatic Brookman rather than Hadley as the man with whom she wants to build a life. I mean, come on, it’s William Powell, the man who played the Thin Man! How could one not fall in love with his urbane charm, his dazzling wit, and that old-fashioned handsome (if slightly weathered) face? Of course, though, I get it. This is postwar America, and Powell, and his character, are relics from an earlier era that have to be shunted aside to make room for the new crop of young men.

Of course, each of the female stars manage to overwhelm any scene in which they appear. Though Grable is fine as far as she goes, for my money the real entertainers are Bacall and Monroe, the former because she brings her signature bite and sass to this gold-digger role and the latter because, beneath the fluffy, buxom exterior one can still sense a fierce form of intelligence. As I watched this film, it occurred to me (not for the first time) what a tragedy it was that Monroe didn’t often get to play parts that really challenged her and, more superficially, that she didn’t get to wear glasses more often. For my money though, Bacall will always be the best thing about any movie in which she appears. That voice…it does it for me.

Visually, the film is stunning, putting both the widescreen and the Technicolor to full effect. The New York portrayed in How to Marry is a utopian world of sumptuous fabrics, snappy dialogue, witty banter, and simple, sheer beauty. Given that the film was shot in CinemaScope, it’s easy to see how it wishes to immerse the postwar spectator in a glorious, glittering world of affluence and romance. The opening and closing of the film heightens this sense of presence, including both an orchestra and curtains, both of which suggest that one is sitting watching a play rather than merely observing what is going on in another room.

At a deeper social level, How to Marry a Millionaire testifies to a culture still unsure what to make of the status of women. While the hegemonic gender norms that dominated the 1950s were already settling into place, American society still struggled to accommodate female desire. It’s worth noting that two of the three marry men who are incapacitated in some way, either because of financial misfortune or physical incapacitation. The final scene of the film has Brookman revealing his vast wealth to the gathered cast, the sight of which causes the women to faint (disappearing from the frame), thus allowing them men to literally have the last word. While the film attempts to recuperate the endangered masculinity that it has put on such conspicuous display in this final scene, these unruly women are not so easily tamed.

In the end, it truly is the women who own this picture and who show us, in 2018, that the 1950s were far less stable than we remember.

Queer Classics: “Love, Simon” (2018) and the Epistemology of the (Digital) Closet

Once upon a time, if you were to look for a mainstream gay teen romance, you would have to look outside the Hollywood system to the indies. Even there, you’d be hard pressed to find a film about queer teens. If there is one thing that has been off-bounds for mainstream film, it’s the idea that anyone under the age of 18 has a sex drive, and this is even more true for the scandalous idea that teenagers might know they’re queer when they’re teens.

Fast forward to 2018, and a relatively small-scoped film called Love, Simon appears to have opened that door to representation.

Simon is your average, middle-class teenager in 2018. He lives with his affluent, accepting parents and a sister that he actually likes. He also harbors a secret that he’s gay. When he comes out to a fellow student whom he knows only via e-mail, he inadvertently sets the stage for a scheme by one of his fellow students to blackmail him with the potential releasing of his sexual secret to the entire school. Fortunately, this being Hollywood, things work out in the end, and Simon ends up uniting with his e-mail beau.

No matter how many times I watch a Hollywood romance, I always find myself choking up at the end. Perhaps, in this case, it’s because I wish that was how my own youth had been, or perhaps because I wish that there had been those kinds of films around when I was growing up. So, when I see two young queer people finding emotional fulfillment at the end of a film (with no baggage attached), I can’t help but feel myself moved by it and to see it, in the aggregate, as a good thing. And, if I’m being completely honest, it simply felt good to see a queer teen romance end happily and fulfilled.

Though of course the love story is the most important component of the film, it is also a meditation on the ways in which digital technologies–and the increasingly interconnected world they have made possible–continue to inflect and change the ways that young queer people interact with one another. Indeed, it is one of the structuring conflicts of the film. Simon’s entire way of being in the world of romance is mediated through technology–first the e-mail (sent on his very expensive Mac), then his repeated alerts on his iPhone, and of course the social media platform that unites the entire school. Simon, and his friends and classmates, must continually navigate the fraught territory of social media, with all of its perils and pitfalls.

What really stood out to me as I watched the film, however, was how much it illustrates that Sedgwick’s theory of the closet still holds true. For those not familiar with this concept, it is essentially the idea that the closet maintains a structuring presence in the life of any queer person. No matter how accepted we are in mainstream culture, no matter how much queer rights have been gained, there is always the reality that, as long as we remain wedded to a homo/hetero binary way of looking at sexuality, and as long as the hetero is assumed to be the norm against which the homo is measured, queers will have to go through the confessional act of “coming out.” Every new person we meet, every new social encounter we have, engenders the question “Do I tell them who I really am?”

This epistemology constitutes the entire plot of Love, Simon. Even in 2018, when it is has become so normal for young people to be open about who they are–and indeed to challenge the categories that have been used to make sense of sexual identities for the last 40 years–the old structures have proven surprisingly enduring. If we truly lived in a world that no longer organized itself around the homo/hetero binary, then Simon wouldn’t be rendered susceptible to his classmate’s blackmail (he threatens to expose Simon’s sexuality on the school’s social media platform). Instead, Simon, like queer people throughout the era of the closet, finds his identity split between his private and public selves, with social media as the hinge between these two spheres.

When his mother tells him that he looked like he was holding his breath, she sums up exactly how the closet works and how it feels to be in it, always and every day. The injunction to come out, the very fact that one has to come out in the first place, is the essence of living in the shadow of the closet. It’s important to remember that there are many (many) queer people who struggle with that part of their identity, who have to make a daily decision about whether or not they are going to reveal their true selves to others in their life. In that sense, Love, Simon is the perfect sort of Hollywood fantasy, one which shows the ideal way in which coming out happens.

It’s easy to dismiss Love, Simon as the worst sort of homonormative, teenage-angsty sort of film. The ending leaves us no plot thread unresolved, and as a colleague of mine pointed out, the ferris wheel sequence fits queer romance into a Hollywood model. Yet, I’m not sure I agree. There is a brief but revealing moment when Bram (the e-mail beau) asks, “Are you disappointed it’s me?” It’s unclear what he means when he asks this question, but I suspect that he’s asking if Simon is disappointed that it’s the black Jewish boy rather than the other more “normative” characters that have periodically flitted into Simon’s life. Let’s not forget that it’s still pretty radical to see a queer interracial couple appear in a major Hollywood studio film.

And that, ultimately, is the great cultural good of a film like Love, Simon. Sure, those on the coasts may not find the film as radical as they might like–and some might even find it downright regressive–but for me, I am glad that a film like this exists. And I’m glad that today’s queer kids will, at last, be able to see themselves up their on the big screen.

Reading Classic Hollywood: Demographic Angst (Alan Nadel)

As some of you who read this blog regularly know, I’m a passionate believer in the value of the public humanities. Now that I’ve finished the dissertation (yay!) and have a bit of time on my hands, and since I’ve been spending so much time reading books in film, I have decided to do my part in that project. I’m going to start posting reviews of books that I think would be of interest not only to those studying film from an academic perspective, but also to those who are fans of film and want to think more complexly and with more nuance about how cinema engages with the world that produces it.

To inaugurate this, I am writing about the new book Demographic Angst: Cultural Narratives and American Films of the 1950s, by Alan NadelI’ve been a fan of Nadel’s for some time now; in fact, his book Containment Culture (about the instability of atomic technology and the way in which this was reflected in the challenges of postmodernism) enormously influenced my own work on Cold War films. So, needless to say, I was very excited indeed to see that he had a new book coming out, which explores a new aspect of my favourite periods of Hollywood history.

Through a series of erudite readings of classic films of the 1950s–ranging from All About Eve to Singin’ in the Rain, from Niagara to West Side Story–Nadel demonstrates the ways in which the cultural texts of the postwar period reflected the ongoing debates and anxieties that characterized American culture in the aftermath of the Second World War. In particular, these films grappled with the tremendous changes in the American population that emerged after the victory. This was an era, after all, of unprecedented economic and population growth, a pinnacle of achievement that the United States had not yet achieved.

However, as Nadel ably demonstrates, the films of the era exposed the contradictions dwelling at the heart of the Cold War American unconscious. Though this is an era that has, in subsequent years, been understood as one of conformity, it was in fact deeply conflicted, for in its attempt to enforce a hegemonic understanding of normality, the dominant ideologies of the period inadvertently summoned up the anxieties they meant to quell. This endless conflict between opposites, Nadel contends, created the angst that was such a signature part of Cold War culture.

Nadel is a historicist in the finest tradition, and he shows how the angst emerging in the broader American culture found their reflection in the cinema of the era. These concerns include the issue of labour (reflected in the bodies and voices of the characters of Singin’ in the Rain and On the Waterfront), the plight of the organization man in the postwar business world (which can be seen in The Court Jester), the perils of female desire (exposed in films such as All About Eve and Sunset Boulevard), and the shifting understandings of the status of Puerto Rico in an era in which Communist Cuba was becoming an increasing presence on the global stage (explored through the narrative of West Side Story). Through these readings, the book shows how 1950s films were very much a part of their moment of production and, as such, co-creators of the ideologies upon which they drew.

Part of the book’s appeal lies in the way that it draws upon such a deep archive of primary materials from the period. As someone who recently did his own research into the discourses of the postwar world, it was exciting to see Nadel read them in ways that would not have occurred to me. Nadel’s ability to weave together the context and his readings of the films makes this an ideal book for those looking to gain a more nuanced understanding of the complexity of the 1950s, the many competing discourses that barraged those living in this profoundly uncertain time. In that sense, Demographic Angst is a particularly valuable book for those of us living in a similarly contentious period of demographic change.

Nadel, while very complex in his thinking and his interpretation of film, nevertheless manages to write in a style that is at once sophisticated and yet accessible to those outside the academy. If you want to learn more about the important cultural work that classic Hollywood films did in their time of production, there is much to gain from reading this book. Further, it’s clear that Nadel has a great deal of fondness for the films that he analyzes, and that he has a keen eye for the visual details that make the cinema of this period such a joy to watch.

If I have one slight complaint about the book as a whole, it’s that Nadel tends to be a little too literal in his associations between the context and the reflection in the film. Still, it is entirely possible that those watching these films would have understood them as participating and reflecting their own lived reality and the ideologies in which they were immersed. As Nadel ably puts it, however, these films also rendered visible–and thus forced an experience of–the contradictory impulses of postwar America.

All in all, I really enjoyed this book for the light that it sheds on the films of the 1950s. I’m one of those weird people who genuinely enjoys reading film criticism, particularly when it helps me to see my favourite films in new and exciting ways. I also like reading about films that I haven’t seen yet (as odd as that sounds). Indeed, sometimes it’s reading about them that makes me want to see them.

Demographic Angst is published by Rutgers University Press. It’s actually priced quite reasonably at around $30, so if you can you should buy a copy for yourself. After all, buying a scholar’s book not only helps them (if they sell enough copies they’ll eventually get a royalty) but also helps to demonstrate to university presses that there is a market for scholarship that exists beyond the libraries that typically purchase them.