World Building: On the Steppes

Far to the east in Haranshar there are the steppes, arguably the most inhospitable and dangerous of the four xhusts. While the deserts of the west are known for their arid climate and unruly natives, the steppes are known for their sweeping grasslands, the vast herds of bison, horse, and deer, and the fiercely independent clans.

Fortunately for the rest of Haranshar, the steppes are separated from the rest of the continent by a mountain chain that has rendered it difficult (and often impossible) for even the most ambitious of chiefs to launch an all-out invasion or conquest. Known simply as the Spine, these are some of the most inhospitable mountains on the entire continent of Aridikh, with peaks thrusting up to a mile into the sky.

The Shah’s writ runs only thinly here, and indeed there is only one of the Great Clans that has taken it upon itself to attempt to force any sort of adherence to the governance of Haranshar, and even that was a relatively recent development, having been undertaken at the same time that Tysfan was built and the rule of Haranshar consolidated. Up until that point, the steppes had been a part of the vast eastern empire largely as a matter of form, since their obedience was mostly in the form of tribute. This would typically take the form of horses, and to this day many of the finest herds to be found in Haranshar can trace their roots to the steppes.

As with the similarly tribal Korrayin, the tribes of the steppes are in an almost constant state of war and conflict. In the time before they were brought under the official jurisdiction of Haranshar, there were times when a Great Chief would emerge from his fellows to command the loyalty of everyone else, but those times are now nothing more than a distant memory, a shadow that is related around the campfires. Still, there exists in the heart of every member of the tribes–whether eagle, hawk, lion, or stallion–the belief that one day they will be able to reclaim their lost heritage and restore the power that has been lost.

While chattel slavery is forbidden by both sacred and common law throughout Haranshar, that does not pertain to those living on the steppes, where it is common practice to seize slaves from opposing tribes. However, under the conditions by which the tribes were incorporated into the rule of greater Haranshar, they are forbidden from taking slaves from anyone other than the tribes themselves. Needless to say, this has been the source of significant consternation for those living in these later days, and there are many who wish to see a return to the era when the weak westerners cowered behind their city walls as the titanic wave of mounted tribesman plundered their lands.

There are at least seven great tribes that have organized themselves, each adopting the name of one of the sacred animals: Eagle, Fox, Wolf, Hawk, Stallion, and Bison. The tribes are constantly feuding with one another, forming and fragmenting alliances depending on the circumstances in any given moment. It is generally accepted that no alliance between any given tribes is only as secure as the men who comprise it and, given the ambition and warrior spirit that seems endemic to their culture, they usually do not last very long.

If there is one thing that unites the tribes, it is their awe of and reverence for the shamans who dwell in the lands by the sea. These men (and a few women), are understood to have a closer relationship to the blood-soaked gods than the common run of mortal. They do not write any of their lore down, and so any information that those in the western regions of Haranshar (or the Imperium, for that matter) are able to solidly identify has come from those few souls brave enough to hazard a journey into the these lands. One such was an explorer from the Peninsula, known to history as Josepe Azules, though since so much of his account comes from his last days–when he was stricken by a fever–it is hard to say how much of it can be considered reliable.

According to Azules, those destined to become shamans are plucked from their parents while still babies, taken over the mountains, and raised among the shamans in the caves above the beaches (which are of black sand). They are then inducted into the Sacred Mysteries, the intricacies of which remain unclear to even the most well-traveled scholar. What we do know is that their rites typically involve blood sacrifice, and every year they choose a man from among the Tribes to fulfill the role of the Sacred King. This man is then sacrificed, along with his ceremonial steed, to show the gods that the tribes have maintained their faith. The shamans are also the guardians of the old prophecies of the tribes, which proclaim that a Sacred King will one day emerge to take ownership of a nameless object, whose presence is known but whose exact nature remains a subject of some dispute among the learned scholars of the west.

It is unclear to those living in the west whether the shamans were originally ethnically distinct from the rest of the tribes or whether they sprang organically out of the tribes in their need for religious leaders. Whichever it is, however, there is no question that they now appear to be almost as different from their fellows as the men of the tribes are from the rest of the Haransharin. Though they have yet to play a significant role in the workings of the wider world, there are rumblings that that may be about to change.

As the events of the novels will make clear, there will come a day when the tribes will become a force to be reckoned with, for both the Shah in his mighty city of Tysfan and for those even further west.

Dark days lie ahead.

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The Great Golden Girls Marathon: “Isn’t it Romantic?” (S2, Ep. 5)

Now we come to what I think is one of the finest episodes of the entire series (yes, I know I’ve said that before, and I’ll probably say it again). Both bittersweet and joyful, “Isn’t it Romantic?” exemplifies the best that The Golden Girls has to offer.

In this episode, Dorothy’s friend Jean (played with inimitable charm by Lois Nettleton) comes for a visit. While warm and delightful and quick to make friends with Rose and Blanche, Jean also harbors something of a secret. Her recently-deceased partner Pat was not, as everyone seems to assume, a man, but a woman. And, on top of that, she gradually finds herself falling for Rose, whose farm-girl cuteness appeals to Jean’s own loneliness and vulnerability. While Rose must ultimately let Jean down easily, the two agree that they can remain friends.

Part of what makes this episode work is the sheer charm exuded by veteran TV actress Lois Nettleton. She’s one of those people that you know you’ve seen on some TV show from the ’60s or ’70s, though you may not be able to say what it was or who she played. Regardless of the role, however, Nettleton always manages to convey the inner warmth and goodness of her characters.

Some, I’m sure, will see in Rose’s repudiation of Jean’s feelings a warning about the the futility of queer desire, but to my mind it’s a very human and natural storyline portrayed in a very sympathetic light. Jean is not rendered into a stereotype or a pathetic figure, but is instead simply a woman who found herself falling for another woman whose kindness and goodness of spirit are some of her most attractive qualities.

As always, Sophia leads the way when it comes to the perspective the viewer is meant to take on Jean’s sexuality. While everyone (including Dorothy) makes a big deal out of it, Sophia accepts it without question, commenting that some people prefer cats over dogs, and some women prefer women over men. It is the blunt simplicity of Sophia’s statement that always stands out to me, as she reveals the folly of overanalyzing human desire and emphasizing the things that we share as fellow human beings.

Yet even Rose, who seems quite befuddled about the whole affair, ultimately concludes that, were she gay, she would proud that Jean felt that way about her. This might seem a little trite to some, but it always resonates with me. Let’s be real; we queer folk have a tendency to fall in love with the straights, and for many of us that is one of the most painful experiences we have as we come into our own as queer people. Far too often, our feelings for our straight friend is met with contempt, if not violence. Isn’t an expression of pride and compassion better than disgust and revulsion? Let’s remember that this is the 1980s, when the Reagan administration was still doing everything in its considerable power to make sure that queer folk stayed invisible. Jean’s visibility, and the girls’ acceptance of her, is a well-deserved slap in the face to that repressive ideology.

But of course no discussion of this episode would be complete without mentioning the uproariously funny jokes that emerge, foremost of which is Blanche’s confusion of “lesbian” with “Lebanese,” with a bit of Danny Thomas thrown in for good measure. The best part is that Blanche is mortally offended that Jean would prefer Rose over her, though she also admits that it’s fine, even if she doesn’t understand it. There is an irony here, given Blanche’s later outrage at her brother’s homosexuality, but that’s a post for another day.

Character Sketch: Childerick

Childerick Merovais is the foremost duke in the Imperium. His bloodlines are impeccable, and for many of the Great Houses his claim to the throne is greater than that of the current Imperator Talinissia, whose mother was a foreigner. His own mother was the younger sister of Talinissia’s father, and while relations were always cordial between the siblings, the same could never be said of their children.

He was born roughly a three years before Talinissia, and when it was in doubt whether her father would produce an heir, there was much discussion among the Great Houses whether the aging Imperator would declare that his sister’s son would inherit. Precocious for his age, the young Childerick had picked up on those possibilities, aided and abetted by his mother, who was very ambitious for her son’s future. When, at last, the aging Imperator produced not one but two heirs, it appeared that these ambitions would come to naught.

When Talinissia’s brother rebelled against her (roughly ten years before the begin of the events of the novel), Childerick stayed strategically neutral. It was only when the rebel had come to the very gates of Ainonis itself and had rendered himself vulnerable that he led his forces at a breakneck pace and fell upon his rear. This allowed Talinissia’s forces to ride out from the city and catch the rebellious prince and utterly destroy his army.

Despite Childerick’s pivotal role in the salvation of her throne (or perhaps because of it), Talinissia has never entirely trusted her cousin. She has known him since he was a child, and she knows all too well the dark humours that haunt the recesses of his mind. He once had a servant thrown out of a window in a fit of pique, and in another instance he stabbed a secretary in the eye with a pen for an imagined slight. However, she is also well-aware of his closeness to the throne in terms of inheritance, and so she has deliberately attempted to shut him out of politics.

As a result of all of these dynastic complexities and ambiguities, Childerick has spent his entire life stewing in bitterness. From his point of view, he was passed over twice, once when his uncle gave the throne to his (possibly illegitimate) daughter and again when she refused to acknowledge him her heir after he saved her from utter oblivion at the hands of her brother. Having been denied his rightful place, he holds Talinissia in nothing but contempt, and is in general not shy about making his feelings as public as possible.

From his youth Childerick was groomed for leadership, especially since he was his parents’ only child. Though the noticed his cruel streak, he was also seen as brilliant and was left in no illusions about his abilities. However, it was also recognized that he was incurably lazy, and that it took a great deal to motivate him to do even the barest amount of his school work. His tutors despaired of him, but none were foolish enough to reprimand him, both for fear of his own wrath and the reprisal from his parents, who would hear no ill said of their son, no matter how well-deserved it might be.

As a result of this spoiled upbringing, Childerick has grown into great power but is also prone to self-indulgence and, occasionally, truly terrifying fits of rage. When he slips into one of these fits, even his children know that the wiser course of action is to leave him alone and wait for it to pass.

From his marriage to Zenosia–herself a well-blooded descendent of at least fourteen Imperators–he has three children. His eldest is his heir Cuthbert, followed by Frederika (without a doubt the brains of the family) and Guillame. The latter has already been promised to the Church and is, arguably, the most normal of all of the children. Cuthbert takes after his father in temperament, though his father’s laziness has here been coupled with a cruelty devoid of the leavening influence of a sharp wit and cunning mind. He has just enough wit to serve the father’s purpose, but not enough to be a truly contributing memory of the family. Thus, there is no question that it is Frederika who is the apple of her father’s eye, and he entrusts most of his important affairs to her.

In recent year, Childerick has largely stayed out of the inner circle of Imperial politics, preferring to hole up in his vast estates. He has been aided in this effort by his chief ally and assistant, Count Pepin. Because Childerick is his liege-lord, Pepin has always accepted his subordinate position, and it is his subservience that has allowed him to survive the service of one of the most capricious nobleman in the Imperium. Despite his divorcement from the affairs of the Imperator, Childerick has still managed to quietly suborn many nobles and Prefects to his cause, and it is well-known that the Deacons of his own duchy support his cause and have even taken to deferring to his wishes in all matters.

At the start of The Heretic’s War, he has once again moved back to his palace in Aionis, for he senses that there is a great deal of unrest in the Imperium of which he can take advantage. His ultimate hope is to unseat his cousin and rival Talinissia and claim the throne for his own. Beside him, Pepin encourages him in these machinations, for the wily count sees in his liege an opportunity to both further his own political ambitions and, just as if not more importantly, fortify his alliance with Holy Church. Between the two of them, they pose the gravest threat to Talinissia’s throne since her brother sought to overthrow her.

It remains to be seen what new alliances will be brokered between the Duke, the Count, and the many starving nobles and clerics all seeking advancement in the Imperium.

Film Review: “Avengers: Infinity War” and the Perverse Fantasy of Annihilation

Warning: Full spoilers for the film follow.

I’ve spent a lot of time over the past few weeks mulling over Avengers: Infinity War, what I thought of it, and I think it is saying about and to us. Though I haven’t really figured out for sure what I believe, I’ve got enough to at least sketch out the broad parameters of an argument. So, here goes.

Some time ago, I wrote some thoughts about Avengers: Age of Ultron and the way in which it can be understood as a melodramatic myth for our current era, in which the processes of climate change that we have ignited threaten to destroy us. Ultron, as the product of human engineering, is the essence of this fear congealed into a single figure and he ultimately seeks to trigger a cataclysm to wipe out humanity, which is averted just in time to prevent absolute catastrophe. The film ultimately proposes that it is not too-late for collective humanity, though it teases us with the possibility that it might be (hence the melodramatic affect it produces).

While Thanos is not driven by the same robotic logic as Ultron, he is just as ruthlessly determined to see his own vision brought to life, no matter how many lives are destroyed in the process. His goal, however, is (in the macro-level) to save the universe from its own rapacious consumption. In Thanos’s vision of himself, he is a savior but also a destroyer, and one term is not possible without the other. In many ways, Thanos seems to exhibit exactly the sorts of egomaniacal tendencies we have observed in real-world politicians. Indeed, his argument that he alone can fix the problems afflicting the universe and that his decision to wipe out half of all of humanity is a necessary act is eerily reminiscent of Trump’s claim that only he could fix the intractable problems facing a broken country.

The terrifying thing about Thanos is that, like it or not, the film really is about him. Brolin brings to the role a measure of both gravitas and charisma that draw us toward him, even as we recoil at the horrors that he perpetrates and the relentlessness with which he pursues his genocidal goals. The fact that so much of the film’s narrative is scattered–split among the various Avengers and Guardians–ensures that it is Thanos’ particular narrative thread that holds together the most coherently and cohesively.

Once again, the Marvel universe channels our anxieties and deepest dread about the anthropocene onto a singular figure, though admittedly one whose powers are such that he cannot be defeated in the normal ways. As Hollywood films typically do, they posit that humanity is beset by forces outside of itself, that the catastrophe that will result in the deaths of billions of people is something so vast and beyond human comprehension that it can only be apprehended through the actions of an individual. That is, essentially, the paradox at the heart of the anthropocene, which the superhero films of the 21st Century seem uniquely poised to capture.

Yet there is also a perverse pleasure in indulging in Thanos’s fantasy solution to the problems afflicting the universe. If manmade climate change and the host of other problems afflicting contemporary subjectivity (and politics) remain intractable and difficult to solve via traditional policy solutions, a film like Infinity Wars allows us to indulge in the idea that yes, indeed, these things can only be fixed by a superhuman figure like Thanos. There is, then, a sort of perilous utopian logic at the heart of this film, one that allows us to give in to our innermost self-destructive fantasies at the same time as it provides us a way out, a way of disavowing that moment of sacrifice. I might even go so far as to suggest that Thanos is the epic hero twisted into a new form, one that commits atrocities in the name of a greater good and that must nevertheless be stopped.

Of course, the truly heart-wrenching part of the film comes when Thanos succeeds in his efforts and literally half of the universe is wiped out, including several members of the Avengers, and the film has a curiously pessimistic conclusion. The downbeat nature of the ending is, of course, a bit of a teaser, as it is almost certain that it will prove temporary and our beloved heroes will somehow be restored to the mortal plane. However, beneath that certainty, I think, there lurks a darker, bleaker awareness that even our superheroes–the ego ideal that we all desire to be–are not immune from the destruction that lurks at the edge of our collective unconscious. What’s more, it also reminds us that, while heroes may return from the dead, that is a privilege denied outside the realm of fiction.

Just as importantly, I do think that the MCU, more than perhaps any other cultural product of recent memory, expresses our collective sense of never-ending catastrophe. It’s hard not to feel that we are enmeshed in a perpetual cycle of bad news and global crises that can never be fully resolved. Though we know that the Avengers will continue in some form, they will have to confront another set of issues in the future. Their work is never done, and this begins to wear on the bodies of the superheroes. As a friend recently pointed out to me, even Cap has begun to show the signs of strain, his face bearing witness to the strain of always having to defend the world (and the universe).

In the end, Avengers: Infinity War is utopian Hollywood entertainment at its finest. It forces us to experience both the pressing problems of our current historical moment and provides (temporary) solutions to those problems that highlight their ultimate intractability. Once again, an Avengers movie has held up a startlingly clear mirror to our own world, forcing us to confront the monsters that haunt our collective imagination.

Who could ask for more than that?

World Building: “The Song of Princes” and the Fall of Old Korray

The following is an extract from Alexias Korenas’ A History of the Korrayin People, Their Customs, and Legends. Compiled roughly 200 years ago, it remains the definitive work on the Korrayin people.

Among the Korrayin, there is no tale more sacred nor terrifying than the Fall of Old Korray. It is related in full in an epic text known as the Song of Princes, and while no complete copy has survived to be investigated by either Imperial or Haransharin authorities (that we know of), enough pieces have been recovered that we can relate the events that took place in at least some detail.

It is said that Old Korray was a land such as had never been seen since the dawn of the world. Larger by far than the distant Middle Kingdom, more lush and verdant than the continent upon which the Anukathi dwell, and far more civilized than any culture in Aridikh, Old Korray was the envy of the world. Indeed, dignitaries from the world’s powers came to the court of their High King–the Melkh, as they called him–to offer their alliances, their daughters, and their riches. Old Korray was, then, the center of the world, the axis around which the other great powers of the world revolved.

The first sign that all was not well began, the Song asserts, when the 29th king of the Uzurite House, Shavid, died in a tragic accident, leaving his numerous sons to squabble over the inheritance. Four of them quickly rose to the top: Kilab, Ethream, Elishua, and Avnon. They at first attempted to divide the kingdom among them, but it was inevitable that they should start to feud among themselves, each seeking to reclaim all of the patrimony for himself. Soon all of Old Korray was torn apart by war.

That war was arguably the most terrible event the world had seen, not to be rivaled until the civil war that brought down the reign of the Old Ones here on Aridikh. There were many great and terrible deeds committed by all sides during those dreadful years, but the end result was that Old Korray was soon an irreparably fragmented kingdom. No House, no matter how small, was able to avoid being pulled into the orbit of one of the Princes. Nor, for that matter, was the royal family, whose ranks were decimated as assassinations and battles flourished.

In the seventh year of the conflict, so the chronicle tells us, the Darkness fell. Perhaps, had the Korrayin not been involved in a feckless war with one another, they might have been able to resist the tide that swept them away, but as it was it took each army one by one. Finally, pushed to the sea, the four brothers–the last of their House–decided to set aside their feuding for the good of their people (a bit too little, too late, it must be said). They commandeered the great ships at the harbour city of Kivala and set sail with their followers. It is hard to say now how many perished as the Darkness overtook Korray, but it is clear from the Song that far more were left behind than were able to be taken in the ships. Truly, it was a dark day, and it haunts the Korrayin to this day.

Some speculate that it was an invading army from either the Middle Kingdom or the Old Ones of Aridikh that were responsible for the collapse of that mighty kingdom and the flight of the Korrayin. It is possible that such a strong attack might have been transformed by the myths and legends of a people into an abstract concept. However, it would have taken a truly mighty army to overcome the Korrayin, even divided as they were.

In my own professional opinion as a trained historian, it is far more likely to have been some sort of natural disaster. The lands to the west, what little we know of them, are reputed to be extraordinarily volatile, and so it seems to me likely that a great volcanic eruption is the source of the myth of the Darkness.

It is also unclear just how much time the Exiles spent on the seas, but it was probably no more than a matter of months. They soon spotted land, and when they came ashore they found a continent almost as prosperous as their own: Aridikh. They landed in the north of what is now Haranshar, very near the border of what is currently called Korray. They quickly found, however, that the mountains just to the west (what we now call the Mountains of Korray) were more hospitable for them, and they began their colonization efforts there. Some few, however, did move southward into the desert regions of Haranshar, where they remain to day.

Thus, as uncertain as many of the facts are surrounding the fall of Old Korray, it is certain that the incursion of the Korrayin onto Aridikh triggered the titanic series of conflicts that brought about the demise of the Old Ones. They landed in their great boat -and immediately set about marrying and conquering the various kings and queens of the Old Ones. Some of these had already established contacts with the Korrayin in their own country, and so the solidification of such alliances was only natural. Of course, by the time of the landing, the first cracks in the Hegemony of the Old Ones had already begun to show, so it was to be expected that a sudden influx of new peoples would exacerbate existing conflicts. And so it proved. Within a generation the Old Ones were mostly gone, and it would not be until the rise of Karyush the Great that the continent of Aridikh would once more find unity.

Since the subsequent history of the Korrayin is recounted elsewhere, I shall end by noting that the priests of Korray, regardless of what faith they follow, continue to hold the Song out as a warning and a promise. An entire body of prophecy has also sprung up, proclaiming that one day a Meschach, a saviour, will arise to unite them and lead them to conquer the continent of Aridikh, restoring them to the greatness that was once theirs.

Such things are, of course, laughable, considering how divided the Korrayin remain and how few of them there are compared to either the Imperials to the west or the Haransharin to their east. Still, one cannot help but wonder if there is some truth to those myths.

But since such things are better left to the Alchemists and their stargazing, I shall end this part of my chronicle here.

Screening Classic Hollywood: “The Seven Year Itch” (1955) and the Puncturing of Hegemonic Masculinity

Billy Wilder is one of my favourite classic Hollywood directors. All of his movies–from Double Indemnity to Sunset Boulevard–crackle and snap with an energy all their own. Wilder had a keen eye for searing away the patina of conformity and niceness of American culture to lay bare the hypocrisy and rot beneath. While at first glance a comedy like The Seven Year Itch may not seem to have the same bleak outlook on the American psyche as some of his earlier films, lurking beneath the surface of this film, however, is an awareness of the fundamental shortcomings of postwar American society.

The film’s ostensible protagonist, Richard Sherman is a middle-aged man in a thoroughly middle-class life: he has a wife, a son, and a gray-flannel suit type job at a publishing house. Unfortunately, he’s miserable, his house is a prison, and all romance is gone from his marriage. After his wife and young son go to Maine to escape the New York summer heat, a bubbly, vivacious, and very blonde young woman (Marilyn Monroe) moves in upstairs, and he immediately sets out to seduce her and inject some new vivacity into his humdrum existence.

This being a Billy Wilder film, it’s almost too clever for its own good. It moves with an almost frantic pace, thanks in part to the twitchy, spastic energy that Tom Ewell brings to the role of Sherman. In fact, his performance verges on neurotic, in that he constantly twitches, grimaces, and indulges in fantasies that have no bearing in actual lived reality. Indeed, the juxtaposition of his fantasy self–as a sex-god who is irresistible to women–with his very plain real self highlights just how delusional he really is.

The Seven Year Itch also turns its razor-sharp wit on the fictions and myths that structured postwar American life. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Sherman has, on the surface, embraced everything that hegemonic American culture had dictated was “normal,” from the 9-5 job, a wife and son, etc. However, 1950s middle-class domesticity and the bread-winner role have left Sherman thoroughly alienated and disenchanted. He is surrounded by the trappings of midcentury consumer culture, but rather than providing him fulfillment, they become a prison and often cause him physical harm, as when he twice trips on his son’s roller-skate. His apartment is also full of the clutter of a consumerist culture, each piece of clutter highlighted by the film’s vibrant color palette.

What’s more, the older model represented by his boss Mr. Brady is no more satisfying. He is a gruff, rather blustering older man who feels even more entrapped by his years-long marriage to his wife. While Sherman wants to return to his wife and possibly find respite from the corrupting influence of the city (and nubile femininity), Mr. Brady embraces the freedom and even intimates that he might pursue an adulterous encounter while his wife is up north. Though the scene is obviously played for laughs, it’s an uncomfortable sort of laughter.

Thus, I would argue that The Seven Year Itch punctures the myth of midcentury hegemonic masculinity. It ultimately becomes not just a prison for the male subject, but a dysfunctional ideal that he cannot fulfill and which encourages him to destroy the things in his life that should matter: relationships with his wife, his child, and even what could be a great friendship “The Girl.” Men in this world are chronically unable to articulate their feelings in any meaningful or sophisticated way, and even the last shot of the film shows Sherman still fumbling about, a complete mess right up until the end.

Understandably, many modern viewers of the film find its gender politics disgustingly regressive, I think this is a rather reductive reading. Don’t get me wrong. I do think that a surface reading does support the idea that this is a deeply misogynist text that treats its female star as largely an object for the male gaze, something to be fetishized and largely ignored as an agent. However, there is also something disruptive about Monroe’s character, and the fact that she seems so blissfully unaware of the effect she has on men suggests that there is far more to her than meets the eye, a force that resists attempts to control her.

The Seven Year Itch ultimately reveals that beneath even the most seemingly misogynistic comedy lies a kernel of subversion.

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.

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.