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Screening History: “Ben-Hur”(1959)

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Some time ago, I wrote a 3-part series of blog posts about the rise and fall of the biblical epic (you can see them here, here, and here). At the time, I was just beginning to explore my dissertation. Since then, however, I’ve managed to write two chapters and have submitted the first draft of a third, and it actually looks like I’ll finish next year. Just as importantly, I’ve gained a more nuanced appreciation for the complexities of my favourite film genre, the historico-biblical epic.

Thus, when it came time to for the annual Oscar Blogathon, I thought, here’s a great opportunity to talk about one of my favourite Oscar-winning epic films, and give a little bit of an indication of how this film fits into my dissertation’s overall argument about the kind of experience of history that the historico-biblical epic provided for its postmodern spectators. So, here we go.

Historically, it’s important to remember that the film was produced in the context of the Cold War, in particular the growing threat that a nuclear holocaust might actually wipe out the entirety of human civilization. There was profound uncertainty throughout the immediate postwar decades about whether the atomic bomb was the weapon by which mankind would finally bring about the fiery oblivion that had been promised by prophets throughout the millennia. Further, many wondered whether it was possible (or even desirable) to attempt to stop this from happening, or whether the power of the bomb and the end of human history it promised should simply be accepted. The individual in the postwar world was not only vulnerable; s/he might in fact be thought of as irrelevant.

Industrially, this was also the period of Hollywood cinema when widescreen technology–which promised the spectator the ability to transcend spatio-temporal boundaries and to encounter a sense of presence with the ancient world–became increasingly widespread. While it had been inaugurated with another historico-biblical epic, The Robe, in 1953, several studios soon rolled out their own processes, for they understood that audiences needed something truly overwhelming and spectacular to draw them away from their living rooms. Indeed, MGM would make a great deal of the fact that their epic was produced in MGM Camera 65, and a production booklet for the film promised that the process promised even greater levels of participation and presence. One was invited to both participate in the action and to be overwhelmed by the majesty of the spectacle.

The aesthetics of the film make full use of this tension between agency and submission, and one can only imagine what it must have been like to be surrounded by the truly overwhelming spectacularity of it all. Imagine, for example, seeing the scene in which Judah must hide, unable to reveal himself to his mother, who has been stricken with leprosy. Imagine feeling as if you, the spectator, were there with Judah, yet also immobilized like him, unable to reach out and touch her, no matter how much your body aches to do so. While this can still be felt to an extent by viewing it on a large-screen HDTV, I daresay it doesn’t come close to measuring up to what the experience must have felt like when seeing it on the true widescreen. Small wonder that the film won the Oscar for Best Cinematography-Color.

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The chariot race, one of the most visceral and exciting sequences in the history of cinema (made all the more so by the widescreen technology used to bring it to life).

Further, one can sense throughout the film–at both the formal and narrative levels–an oscillation between agency and impotence. No matter how hard Judah tries to do the right thing, he finds his agency circumscribed by forces he cannot name nor control. He can do nothing to save his family from their imprisonment, he cannot save himself from his enslavement in the galleys (it is through the capricious whim of the Roman Arrius that he is freed from his chains and thus allowed to escape the sinking ship), he can do nothing to save his mother and sister (they are purged of leprosy by the Crucifixion), and he cannot even really win the chariot race (he both places his eventual fate in God’s hands and his nemesis Messala is ultimately brought down by his own vindictiveness). There’s no denying, though, that Judah is a spectacular sufferer.

There is, then, something exquisite and beautiful about this suffering, in no small part because of the star text of Heston (who won the Oscar for Best Actor). While I am not Heston’s biggest fan, he makes a fantastic epic hero precisely because everything that is thrown at him makes him stronger. Much has been written about the way in which his chiseled facial features and imposing physicality ensured that he always appeared tightly wound, ready to erupt into violence at any moment. That is certainly true in this film; even when he is chained in the galleys, Heston’s Judah is a slab of muscled flesh, an object of erotic fascination and muscular identification. We know that the years of servitude have only hardened his body until it becomes the perfect weapon, the perfect means of effecting his vengeance against the man who wronged him and his family.

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The exquisitely erotic suffering of Heston’s Judah Ben-Hur.

Yet for all if its beauty, the world that this film depicts is a place of dark and terrifying brutality. The chariot race is, of course, one of the most memorable events in the history of cinema, but it is also an indication the rather Hobbesian mentality that governs this world. Life for many is, indeed, nasty, brutish, and short, as indicated by the many charioteers who perish during the course of the race. Messala, struggling to stay alive long enough to taunt his old enemy, suggests as much when he defiantly informs Judah that the race goes on. All the blood that now stains the sands of the Circus are but the precursor, he suggests, to an ongoing set of conflicts and strife that will continue to rock the Roman world as it is gradually replaced by Christianity.

In the end, of course, the film has to pay at least some attention to the fact that it is “a tale of the Christ,” and so it ensures that his own journey to the Cross intersects with Judah’s attempt to rescue his family. Indeed, it is the Crucifixion itself that washes them clean of their affliction, thus rendering possible the reconstitution of the family and Judah’s spiritual peace. What strikes me as particularly compelling about this fact is that it renders the rescue of the afflicted family a matter undertaken by the suffering Christ rather than anything done by Judah. In an age in which individual human agency seemed to have become impossible, it makes sense that the film would displace Judah’s historic ability to effect change in his world onto the film’s (largely  unseen) Christ.

Ben-Hur was in many ways the apex of the cycle of historico-biblical epics that had begun with Cecil B. DeMille’s Samson and Delilah in 1949. While the cycle would produce several other high-profile and profitable hits, it would never attain quite the level that this film did, and none would manage to grab as many Oscars. Indeed, Ben-Hur’s Oscar haul would be unmatched until Titanic 40 years later. This film showed what was possible when a supremely talented director (William Wyler) was paired with a great cast, fine writing, and the seemingly unlimited financial capacity of the most glamourous and resplendent film studios (MGM, in the person of producer Sam Zimbalist, who sadly died before the film was completed). While other epics might be more glamourous or more historically sophisticated (Cleopatra in 1963 or The Fall of the Roman Empire in 1964), they just couldn’t quite measure up to the splendid achievements of Ben-Hur. 

In terms of scholarship, there have been a number of recent essays and books published about this film. Of particular interest is Jon Solomon’s monograph Ben-Hur: The Original Blockbuster. This book provides an extensive overview of this story, beginning with Lew Wallace’s original novel. You should also check out Bigger than Ben-Hur, which is a collection of essays published by Syracuse University Press. Don’t let the university press designation scare you off; the essays are quite accessible and shed a great deal of light on how a 19th Century novel continues to exert a powerful hold on the contemporary imagination. Film scholar Ina Rae Hark has a compelling essay on the nature of erotic suffering in the 1959 film.

Even now, after almost 60 years after its initial release, Ben-Hur does indeed remain “The Entertainment Experience of a Lifetime,” a testament to the might, the power, and the majesty of Old Hollywood and, just as importantly, to the enduring fascination of the world of ancient Rome.

I hope you’ve enjoyed my entry in this year’s Oscar Blogathon. If you’d like to leave your own reflections or appreciations on the film, I’d greatly appreciate it!

This is the face of the terror of history.

Trump and the Terror of History

In my work on the post-war historico-biblical epic, I talk a lot about the “terror of history.” It’s a term with a lot of baggage and ideological weight, first mentioned by the philosopher of religion Mircea Eliade is his book Myth of the Eternal Return and taken up by the historian Theofilo F. Ruiz in his book The Terror of history:  On the Uncertainties of Life in Western Civilization. It’s a provocative term precisely because it encapsulates so much of what we know, subconsciously at least, to be true about the processes of history.

They are, in a word, terrifying.

By terrifying I mean many things, but the thing I want to focus on here is the sense that the movement of history forward seems to always be beyond the ability of the individual human being to either comprehend in its totality or to effect in any meaningful way. An unfortunate side-effect of this is also the sense that those left in the path of history are often the most victimized and marginalized. The march of history, and also its cycles, often brutalize human life in ways and at a scale that are truly horrifying to contemplate. One cannot help but think of the philosopher Hegel’s infamous suggestion that history is the slaughter bench of humanity, the altar upon which collective humanity sacrifices those whom it wants to be rid of. While the 20th Century is often shown to be a truly horrific period in that regard, boy is the 21st giving it a run for its money.

Of course, we on the Left like to believe that history, with all of its horrors and all of its perpetual uncertainty, is a steady and relentless move forward toward a more just and peaceful world. We like to believe, to paraphrase Dr. King, that the moral arc of the universe bends toward justice. We like to believe, sometimes we have to believe, that somehow everything will turn out okay in the end, that the better angels of our nature will take over and we will somehow learn to show compassion to our fellow humans. That somehow the compassion that seems to be hardwired into the mammal brain will overcome the brutal reptilian id that always seems to lurk at the corners of our collective consciousness, ready to strike out with fangs and claws and rend the fabric of civilization, reducing it to primal shreds.

However, as scholars like Tobias Stone have shown, there is a certain terrifying circularity to the workings of human events. We as a species seem determined to enter into periods of enormous and catastrophic destruction of our own kind. We just can’t seem to help ourselves. We just keep wanting to repeat the same mistakes over and over and over again, grinding ourselves up in the relentless wheel of time’s turning. Whereas Eliade argued that the terror of history came from the abandonment of the circular notions of time prevalent in many archaic societies (his problematic term) in favour of the relentless forward momentum of modernity, to my eye it is the circularity that is the truly terrifying understanding of time. How can we go on, when we know that any progress we made is destined to meet the same resistance as it always has, forcing us to take a giant three steps back for every step forward?

The terrifying nature of Trumpian history is more than just the candidate himself. It is also the tide of red–of white conservatism, of bloodthirsty savagery–that threatens to inundate us. Part of it can be quantified, of course. One need look no further than the hundreds of stories of racial and gendered assault that flooded social media and various nonprofits in the days since the election. Words that were formerly and rightly decried as hate speech have now been given new license to exist out in the open, validated by a presidential candidate who used “political correctness” as a clarion call for all the white nationalists, xenophobes, anti-semites, misogynists, and homophobes to come out of the woodwork and loudly and proudly declare themselves liberated from the chains of civilized discourse. This is a red tide that threatens to drown all those who would see the world a better, more just world.

And though many have focused (with good reason) on the fear of minorities in this new era of Trump, the consequences of Trump’s victory for the war against climate change are even more terrifying to contemplate. We know we are living in the anthropocene, and now that powerful force has a name and a face, and it is Donald J. Trump. The United States of America, supposedly the telos of history’s forward progress toward a cleaner, more sustainable planet, has now turned its back on that progress. We have, through our election of this man and his party, abrogated our responsibility as a global power and unleashed a new and even more terrifying period of history.

So what do we do with ourselves now that we live in this era in which the terror of history has once again threatened to grind us up and leave behind a trail of bodies (both literal and metaphorical?) Do we simply abandon ourselves to the seeming inevitability of decline and destruction that seems to loom on the horizon, blazing and frothing at every opportunity.

The short answer is:  of course not. If there is a silver lining to this entire horror, it is that perhaps Trump will indeed galvanize the Left. If Hillary Clinton’s impending victory in the popular vote–which looks to be quite substantial, by the way–is any indication, there are a lot more on our side than there are supporting the terrifying creature now poised to occupy the White House. However, it does not have to stay that way. We really do have an unparalleled opportunity to show ourselves and the world that we are a country of thinking, critical citizens and that, when we band together, we truly are stronger together.

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Viewing History: “The Greeks” at the National Geographic Museum

I recently had the pleasure of attending the exhibit entitled “The Greeks:  From Agamemnon to Alexander the Great” at the National Geographic Museum. As a lifelong devotee of the classics and an avid museum-goer, it was quite compelling to see the world of the ancient Greeks brought to life, with a number of exquisite artifacts from various museums throughout Greece on magnificent display.

I have to say, I really enjoyed the exhibit, both in the vast scope of what it included as well as the information displayed. While most people usually think of classical Athens as the epitome of Greek culture, there was a great deal both before and after, and the National Geographic Museum did a fine job displaying objects from throughout the history of ancient Greece, including objects from Minoan Crete, Mycenae, classical Athens, and Macedon.

I was particularly excited to see both the objects from Mycenae and from the kingdom of Macedonia. In terms of Mycenae, it was really quite thrilling to see one of the masks that the archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann believed belonged to the infamous King Agamemnon from The Iliad. There is always something particularly unsettling about these death-masks, and that is certainly true in this case. These are objects that convey an admittedly dim impression of the actual face of the deceased, but one cannot shake the feeling that one is standing in the presence of the ghosts of the past, a ghostly and ethereal reminder of lives past. While only one of the masks was actually from the tomb (the other, more famous, was shown in a replica), it was still a phenomenal experience to see these icons of the ancient world in actual space.

There is something even more unsettling about the helmets that have been excavated from various tombs. Again, I couldn’t shake the feeling that the presence of the dead was everywhere in the room, suffusing the entire exhibit with an aura of faded, yet still potent, grandeur. These were the most powerful and skilled men in their world, now reduced to nothing more than empty helmets in a lavish room, a humbling reminder of the exquisite ephemerality of the human experiment.

The true highlight of the Macedonian section, however, was the crown belonging to Queen Meda, the seventh and final wife of Philip II and the only one permitted to be buried with him in his official tomb. Further, there was also a small medallion with a portrait of Olympias, which the caption claimed was the only verified likeness that we have of her. Needless to say, as a fan of the powerful women of the ancient world, it was quite thrilling to see bits and pieces of their lives, reminders that even in the most patriarchal societies there was still the possibility of revolt and subversion.

At the formal level, I actually appreciated that there has been a shift from live-action reenactments to heavily stylized cartoons. For better or worse, the old style of reenactment has become rather blase, and it is often difficult to take them seriously, even in the most serious environment. Fortunately, these new animations looked very similar to the Greek vase paintings, allowing them to remain aesthetically woven into the fabric of the exhibit as a whole.

I do, however, have one complaint to make about the exhibit, and that is the resolute straight-washing that permeates its entire ethos. Some of the incidents are minor, such as referring to Patroclus as Achilles’ friend, when even the ancient Greeks believed they were lovers. Others, however, are significant omissions that present a skewed vision of ancient Greek culture. There was no mention (or none that I saw) of the same-sex relationships that were key to practically every Greek city-state, whether it was the institutionalized pederasty of Athens and Sparta or the Sacred Band of Thebes. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised, but it is still distressing to see this historical blindspot in 2016, after generations of classicists and historians have worked so hard to not only bring the presence of same-sex desire into the open but also to show how historically contingent it is (and remains). This is a major shortcoming of the exhibit, in my view, a wasted opportunity to explore the Greeks’ contradictory thoughts about same-sex desire.

Overall, however, I would say that this is a successful exhibit and does a great deal to bring to light the strange and compelling nature of the world of the ancient Greeks. For all that they are looked to as one of the foundations of Western culture, civilization, and government, there was much about their way of being and looking at the world that is completely foreign to and different from our own. This exhibit, fortunately, makes a significant contribution in helping the modern subject to understand that strangeness.

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Screening History: “Ben-Hur” and the Tragedy of the Might-Have-Been

I went into Ben-Hur with the lowest possible expectations. Critics and audiences alike seemed to disdain the film, and its opening box office was truly abysmal. I was worried that somehow this box office and critical disaster would taint my love for the 1959 version.

As sometimes happens, however, the film actually exceeded all of my expectations. While it does not hit the same notes of operatic grandness achieved by its predecessors (including, it is worth noting, the 1925 version, which seems to have been largely forgotten in the discourse surrounding this one), it is nevertheless a competent and at times quite moving film.

The film basically follows the same trajectory as the previous versions, as Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston) and his boyhood friend and adopted brother Messala (Toby Kebbell) find themselves pulled apart by the historical times in which they live, in which the power of Rome continues to oppress the people of Judaea. Their own personal rivalry–which culminates in the famous chariot race–takes place at the same time as the ministry of Christ (Rodrigo Santoro) whose sacrifice and Crucifixion lead to the eventual reconciliation of Judah and Messala.

Though he lacks the larger-than-life monumentality that Heston brought to his interpretation of the role, the young Jack Huston brings something else equally valuable. He manages to bring both a measure of vulnerability and sensitivity to the role, neither of which are traits that Heston could ever have claimed to embody. For that reason, I actually found Huston’s lack of star power refreshing, in that it allowed me to put aside my preconceptions of what Judah should look like and instead appreciate what this relatively unknown star (who nevertheless hails from an illustrious Hollywood lineage) was able to bring to the role.

Indeed, I thought there was a great deal of chemistry between him and his fellow lead Toby Kebell. The latter brings a powerful, brooding energy to the character of Messala, a young man overshadowed by a tainted family legacy and his own desire to prove himself worthy of being a Roman. It’s hard not to find him compelling, in much the same way as it was difficult to not find oneself attracted to Stephen Boyd (who played the role in the 1959 version). However, I do think that Kebbell brings a softer, more vulnerable–and thus, ultimately, more redeemable–characterization to the role.

Of course, Morgan Freeman also deserves credit for the gravitas that he brings to the role of Sheik Ilderim. Whereas his earlier counterpart had been a rather egregious example of blackface, Freeman imbues his character with a powerful, brooding solemnity. We learn, for example, that his son had also been a zealous enemy of Rome, a position that earned him an ignominious and horrific death at the hands of the Roman state. One cannot help but feel the resonance with the ways in which black bodies are still rendered subject (and abject) to the violence of the state.

Of course, the two of the most affective and intense scenes were the scene in the galley and the chariot race. Both allowed for a feeling immersion, of being there and inhabiting two very different moments. While the galley sequence (as such sequences frequently do) forces us to inhabit a claustrophobic world of the abject, the chariot race represents a reclamation of embodied agency. In fact, I actually think the scene in the galleys is more terrifying and visceral than the 1959 version, in no small part because so many of the shots are from Judah’s hampered point of view. The race, for its part, is quite as stirring as the original, and seeing it on the big screen was absolutely a part of the phenomenologically powerful experience.

It’s a tad unfortunate that the Crucifixion scene–which should, one would think, land with the greatest possible emotional impact–comes off as so stilted and emotionless. Santoro, bless him, just doesn’t bring a great deal to the role of Christ. Not that this is entirely his fault; the script doesn’t really allow him to do anything other than utter a few incredibly flat-footed platitudes. In this instance, it seems that the practice of the earlier films, which resolutely kept Christ out of the frame, proved to be the better move.

That aside, I do think that the latter half of the film holds together much more effectively than the first. Part of this, I think, has to do with the gratuitous number of cuts throughout the first half of the film. One would think that the opposite would be the case; after all, these early scenes are designed to establish the personal level of the drama. Unfortunately, however, Bekmambetov is a bit too fond of the cut, and it becomes distracting more than it should be.

Despite the choppy and often gratuitous editing of those early scenes, however, the film does succeed in showing how much Messala and Judah care for one another, a crucial bit of backstory that we don’t really see in the 1959 version (though Gore Vidal’s juicy gossip suggests that his script had a homoerotic undercurrent). As a result, we get to know and care about these characters and their relationship. And you know what? That final reconnection between Messala and Judah actually brought tears to my eyes. Because, despite everything else, it felt earned. These two actors bring enough emotional resonance to their roles that we actually care about what happens to them. At a broader level, it also provides hope that, even in this time of historical conflict, that somehow solidarity can and will win out of hatred.

Is Ben-Hur a perfect, or even a great film? Absolutely not, and there are a number of reasons for this. At the risk of continuing to compare the film to its predecessor, I do think it’s noteworthy that this reboot did not have a major directorial name attached to it. While Timur Bekmambetov is no stranger to Hollywood, he doesn’t have the same sort of resumé as or cultural capital as a director like William Wyler, who had already established himself as a formidable artist director of stature. Bekmambetov, for better and worse, does not have quite that amount of presence to help lift Ben-Hur to the heights of true greatness to which it might otherwise have aspired.

In the end, I strongly suspect that the 2016 iteration of Ben-Hur will go down in history as a well-intentioned but ultimately unsuccessful reimagining of a cinematic and literary classic. Still, I do hope that those who watch it take it on its own terms, for it really is quite a good film in its own way. And that, perhaps, is its greatest tragedy.

 

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Book Review: “Children of Earth and Sky” (Guy Gavriel Kay)

Every so often you come across an author who manages to blend the strands of fantasy and historical fiction into a seamless whole. There are, unfortunately, very few of those in the fantasy world, though authors like George R.R. Martin has come to fame in being able to do so, but if your appetite for the blending of the two genres has been whetted by A Song of Ice and Fire, you should definitely crack open a book by Guy Gavriel Kay.

Kay’s most recent work, Children of Earth and Sky, is set in a universe largely like the Early Modern world that we are familiar with, peopled with a number of competing powers and players, including Seressa (a Venice analogue), Osmanlis (the Ottomans), Obravic (the Holy Roman Empire), Senjan (the Senj), and Dubrava (Dubrovnik). A host of characters both major and minor appear, including a young painter, a renegade nun, a young raider, and a prosperous merchant. Their fates intertwine and break apart and, as a result, the foundations of their world begin to shift.

There is just something haunting and lyrical in Gay’s prose that makes each of his books a genuine pleasure to read. He manages to evoke not just the inner psychology of the characters but also the ethos of the period. We can inhabit, if only for the space of the narrative, a world in many ways utterly unlike our own, governed by different laws and lived by different rules. This was probably more true of the original Sarantine books (given that they take place in Late Antiquity), but the same is still true of this novel, with its world of cut-throat politics and a world trembling on the brink of change. (Perhaps that world isn’t so unlike our own, after all…)

Further, Kay imbues his works (at least all the ones that I have read) with a strand of philosophy. He writes fiction that does and says something, that strives to make us think about the world in a different way. This novel, perhaps more than any other that I have read in recent memory, asks us what it means to exist in the flowing stream of time and history. Very few of the characters are major players in the world’s political sphere–though they are often adjacent to it–but their actions have far-reaching consequences that affect everyone in their world. Kay, and his narrator, clearly wants us to think about how it is that we make sense of both our individual

However, this is not to say that the novel doesn’t also give equal attention to the personal and the romantic. Indeed, there are at least three haunting romances that occur during the course of the novel, and Kay handles the affairs of the heart with the same grace and haunting prose as he does the larger set pieces. It’s a rare book that actually brings me to tears, but I definitely shed more than a few as I read the final pages of Children of Earth and Sky.

Of course, for those who have read his duology The Sarantine Mosaic (comprised of Sailing to Sarantium and Lord of Emperors), Children contains a number of fascinating little nuggets. Pero, for example, stumbles upon the remains of the tiny birds that were used by the sorcerer in Sailing to Sarantium as vessels for captured spirits, while the dowager Eudoxia serves as a living reminder of the earth-shattering fall of the splendid city of Sarantium to the invading Osmanlis. Much has changed since Crispin made his fateful voyage, and though the reader remembers him, it would appear that much of what he has created has vanished with time. Time is a river that can wash away even the greatest of art, even a mosaic made by a heartbroken mosaicist looking for redemption in an eastern city.

The only downside to being a fan of Kay’s is that, being such a meticulous craftsman, it takes him a fairly long time to produce a new novel. Fortunately, I’m still working my way through his back catalogue, but once I’m finished with them, I’ll just have to wait patiently until he once again allows us a glimpse into his endlessly fertile imagination.

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Film Review: “The Witch” Explores the Dark Side of Colonial America

Fair warning, some spoilers for the film follow.

I remember hearing very good things about the horror film The Witch, but somehow the stars never aligned and I did not have a chance to watch it. Fortunately, I have no rectified that situation, and I can say without reservation that it is one of the finest horror films I have ever seen.

It is the 17th Century, and the young woman Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) joins her father William (Ralph Ineson), mother (Kate Dickie), and her younger siblings Caleb, Mercy, Jonas, and baby Samuel. When the titular witch kidnaps the baby and uses him to restore her lost youth, she sets in motion the gradual dissolution of the family into madness and despair, death and chaos.

Now, let me clarify. This is not one of those blood and gore spattered butcherfests that passes for horror in this day and age (not that there’s  necessarily anything with that). This is horror in the old-fashioned, psychological sense of the word, where we in the audience know little more than the characters themselves do. We are sutured largely into two perspectives, that of the increasingly bewildered William and the increasingly frustrated (yet also bewildered) Thomasin. Though the camera offers us periodic glimpses into events that occur outside of their ken, these are rare, and for the most part we remain as bewildered and frightened by this inhospitable world as our protagonists.

As any good horror film director knows, 90% of the effect can be created through the effective use of music and sound, and that is certainly the case here. The score makes extensive use of strings, which often lilt and careen wildly from dark and somber to screaming and frantic. The fact that these shifts often occur without narrative explanation makes them all the more unsettling.

One of the things that I most enjoyed about the film was the way in which it brought out the reality that, for these early settlers, England is still in living memory. The old country is, for Thomasin at least, a space of lost innocence and security, a stark contrast to the brooding world that she currently inhabits. It is significant, I think, that she asks Caleb whether he remembers a patch of sunlight that occurred in their old home, and while he does not recall it, it occupies a singularly important place in her own memory.

This early America is a space full of dark, forbidding power, where the wild has not yet been tamed and where the devil is, in fact, just waiting to strike down the unwary. The events that unfold–the death of Samuel, the grisly deaths, the dissolution of the family, the revelation that the goat Black Philip is indeed the personification of Satan–all occur without a great deal of narrative explanation. Oh, there are hints at why this particular family has been singled out, such as when Caleb seems to have a moment of lust toward Thomasin, but for the most part these horrifying events seem random.

Further, what makes the film so unsettling is how much remains unresolved and unexplained by the end of the film. Who (or what) was the witch of the title? Was she merely some misunderstood and abused young woman driven into the wild, where she was ensnared by the Devil? Was she, like Thomasin, profoundly alienated by the culture in which she lived and sought out the only source of power available to her, no matter what the cost? This is my own personal preference, given that the film ends with Thomasin at last embracing the promises held out to her by Philip and joining in with the other witches that have gathered in the forest. While unsettling, this last moment is in many ways a reclamation of the agency that she has struggled so mightily to attain.

The Witch definitely belongs in that pantheon of what I consider some of the finest horror films, those films that really tap into the darkest, most visceral parts of our collective psyche. It draws on the great fears that still haunt us–the porousness of the family, the potential uncanniness of our own progeny, the intractability of the religious unconscious–to both expiate our collective sins an experience an utterly alien and terrifying world.

Score:  10/10

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Reading History: “The Conqueror’s Wife” (Stephanie Thornton)

As readers of this blog know, I have a voracious appetite for historical fiction set in the ancient world. Fortunately for me, Stephanie Thornton has again released a fantastic tale, this time focused on the men and women surrounding that most powerful of ancient generals, Alexander the Great.  With The Conqueror’s Wife, Thornton takes her place alongside Mary Renault as one of the handful of writers who has a strong grasp of the effect Alexander had on those who surrounded him.

The novel follows the fortunes of four primary characters:  Drypetis, younger daughter of Darius III; Thessalonike, the half-sister of Alexander; Hephaestion, Alexander’s lover and best friend; and Roxana, Alexander’s conniving yet beautiful first wife and mother of his child Alexander IV. They each find themselves caught up in the powerful, overwhelming personality that was Alexander the Great.

Through some strange skill known only to her, Thornton manages to make Roxana, certainly one of the novel’s most vicious and bitter characters, into an understandable figure. We see through her eyes as she suffers first the brutal punishments of her cruel and uncaring father and then the depravity of the usurper Bessus, before finally becoming the original Queen of Queens to Alexander. Her position remains unstable, though, and becomes all the more so after the conqueror marries the royal Stateira and then dies of a fever. Desperate to retain her status, Roxana resorts to ever more desperate measures, and while we are led to feel revulsion at her increasing bitterness and cruelty, we also understand their source. She recognizes the cruel necessity that her body is her key to power, even as she grows to hate (at least at a subconscious level) what she has gradually become.

Roxana’s fellow Persian, Drypetis, could not be more different. She yearns to understand what makes things work, and her restless desire for more knowledge keeps her going even through the hardest moments of her life. She gradually endues the loss of almost everyone that she cares for, from her father Darius to her husband and true love Hephaestion.

Thessalonike is in many ways the twin of Drypetis. Both are royal young women who are exceptional in that they do not fit comfortably into the roles expected of them.  Thessalonike yearns to be a fighter and a warrior like her elder brother,while Drypetis has a mind for mechanical things.  Neither is willing to let the limitations imposed on their gender keep them from doing what they want, and both are fiercely loyal to their families. Unfortunately, they both also find themselves subject to powers greater than they are, and both experience unimaginable loss.

Fortunately, they also find strength in one another. As two of the fortunate survivors of both Alexander’s reign and the bloodbath that followed his death, they are able to find solace and power in the companionship that they have so long been denied. It is a fitting reminder of the intensity of the relationships that often emerge between and among women.

Finally, we come to Hephaestion. He has always been an ambiguous character in much historical fiction, given the fact that many authors prefer to refer to him as Alexander’s “best friend” or some equally innocuous term. Thornton cuts through all of that and makes it clear that the bond between Alexander and Hephaestion was deeply passionate and intensely sexual. While the novel does not go into too much detail about the mechanics, it also does not leave any doubt that, even after many years, the relationship between Alexander and Hephaestion was almost certainly still sexual and that they really did love one another with a power beyond that of mere friendship.

Thornton paints a compelling and visceral portrait of a dark and brutal world. She doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to portraying both the grit and gore of the battlefield, as well as the equally bloody and dangerous worlds of the bedroom and the political arena. All of the characters find themselves forced do things that they would rather avoid, and they have to live with the scars that these actions inflict on their psyches.

There are two casualties of the novel, Alexander and his mother Olympias. Unfortunately for Olympias, her actions–most of which had at least some measure of justification given the dark and tumultuous times in which she lived–do not lend themselves to sympathetic portrayal. For my part, I did feel a pang of sympathy for her when Cassander at last outmaneuvers her and has her stoned to death. This, after all, was a woman who managed to survive everything thrown her way, only to at last meet the most ignominious of deaths. But, I have to admit, she makes a compelling villain.

As for Alexander, the novel paints him as something of an egomaniac (as he probably was), and in that sense is a useful corrective to some of the more hagiographical approaches of other authors. Much as I love Renault, she tends to gloss over some of Alexander’s more glaring faults. Thornton shows Alexander as an undeniable genius, one of those rare leaders who combined phenomenal charisma and military acumen with more than a touch of madness.

Thornton does an excellent job, as always, of painting exquisite portraits of the conflicted and compelling personalities that had an enormous impact upon the world in which they lived. I cannot wait until she reveals the subject of her next novel.

Reading History: “The First Congress” (Fergus M. Bordewich)

Some popular historians have a knack for writing works that are both erudite and eminently enjoyable.  While the latter is certainly not a criterion that should be emphasized too much, it certainly does make reading their works easier.  Such is certainly the case with The First Congress, by Fergus M. Bordewich.  With wit, erudition, and just plain good writing, Bordewich brings this pivotal period in American governmental history to life.

Bordewich paints these characters with a marvelously detailed brush, showing us the ins and outs of these men (and they were exclusively men) who sought to forge a government out of the tumult and failure of the Articles of Confederation.  While he focuses, with good reason, on Washington and Madison, whom he sees as crucial to the forging of the early American government, there are many others who gain some attention.  He draws particular attention to William Maclay and Robert Morris, the two senators from Pennsylvania.  These two men could not have been more different, yet Bordewich allows us to understand their idiosyncrasies and the values that motivated them to undertake the mammoth effort to craft a unified government.

Alexander Hamilton and John Adams also both make substantial appearances in the book.  Hamilton is painted (justifiably) as a brilliant mind and an integral part of the formation of the infant nation’s financial infrastructure.  Unfortunately, Adams does not emerge in a very flattering light, and Bordewich seems to (at times, anyway) go out of his way to highlight his inadequacy as the president of the Senate.

As Bordewich points out, two of the fundamental decisions facing the First Congress were the formation of the national bank and the decision on where to establish the national capital.  Of course, neither of these were easily decided, and both necessitated a great deal of negotiation among the various parties.  It is rather startling to think that the U.S. capital might have ended up somewhere in Pennsylvania (there was, for a time, a sizable that wanted it located on the banks of the Susquehanna), and while the national bank did not last (it was eventually demolished by Andrew Jackson), without it the United States government would probably have foundered on the banks of insolvency.

There are some particularly eyeopening revelations in this book, including the fact the Bill of Rights, that most vaunted and celebrated part of the Constitution, was actually not high in the list of priorities for this first Congress.  Indeed, as Bordewich argues, it was only through the resourcefulness and skill of Madison that we gained the amendments that remain so fundamental to our way(s) of thinking of ourselves as a nation and as a culture.

The two greatest casualties of the First Congress, Bordewich suggests (though he does not go into a great deal of detail) were the fates of African Americans and Native Americans.  While the question of slavery was punted to future generations–a decision that would have grave consequences for the future of the nation–Native Americans were also rather thrown under the bus in these early days by the members of Congress.  While this particular aspect does not get as much attention in this book as it probably deserves,  Bordewich does deserve praise for bringing it into focus at all.

All of this is delivered in a lively and engaging style.  Bordewich, like so many of our great popular historians, writes with clarity and precision.  In particular, his command of verbs lends a vivacity and immediacy to the proceedings, so that we as readers feel as if we are there in those early days, dealing with the harsh winter conditions or the blistering summers, the devastating (and often deadly) outbreaks of influenza, and the myriad other inconveniences that comprised daily life in late 18th Century America.  Fortunately, Bordewich leavens this with his own sharp analysis and piercing interpretation of historical events.

Overall, Bordewich paints a compelling and eminently readable portrait of the First Congress.  Furthermore, his chronicle gives hope that, even in these incredibly divided and partisan times, there is still hope that Congress can somehow overcome its own worse nature, work through the bickering, and finally manage to accomplish something(s) for the greater, common good.  I only hope that that’s not just wishful thinking.

My thanks to NetGalley for providing me with an ARC of this wonderful book.

And, finally, here’s to my 200th post on this blog.  Let’s hope for 200 more!

The Secret Chord

Reading History: “The Secret Chord” (Geraldine Brooks)

Some writers of historical fiction have a particular knack for evoking a sense of the strangeness of a past culture, capturing in their language the ethos that drives a particular culture.  Mary Renault, Colleen McCullough, and Madeline Miller are examples of such writers, and with The Secret Chord, Geraldine Brooks proves that she can also be numbered among those with a keen understanding of the ancient world and an appreciation of its differences from the modern we currently inhabit.

Told from the point of view of Natan, one of the Old Testament’s most  famous prophets, the novel follows the rise of the biblical king David and his gradual decline, as well as the rise of his son Shlomo (known to us as Solomon).  We see David through Natan’s eyes, as a brilliant but flawed man who managed to forge a measure of peace and unity upon a fractious and warlike people.  David is also a man driven by passions, including his ill-fated (and, in this novel, explicitly physical) love of Yonatan, the son of tragic King Shaul, and his ruinous and ultimately catastrophic lust for the woman Batsheva, the wife of his general Uriah.  Natan stands with David through all of the trials that follow until, as the old king nears his death, he conspires with Batsheva to ensure that Shlomo inherits the throne.

David emerges from this novel as a compelling but flawed king, a man capable of bringing the scattered and feuding Jewish tribes together into a nation.  However, for all of his political and military abilities, he is also prone to his own sexual desires, and he is stubbornly blind to the numerous faults of his many sons.  It is the combination of these two flaws that ultimately rends David’s family and threatens to undo the unity of the kingdom, a fate only narrowly averted by the manipulation of Batsheva and her ally Natan.

While Natan is our access to this world, he is far from an idealized hero.  Like David, he makes choices that seem morally and ethically questionable from our modern perspective.  In perhaps his most important and morally dubious move, he lies to David about a promise that he supposedly made to Batsheva regarding Shlomo’s right to inherit the throne, taking advantage of his monarch’s aged weakness in order to usher in the period of greatness that he has seen as a result of his visions.  Is he justified in doing so?  Probably, but that doesn’t change the fact that he has taken advantage of an ailing man in order to bring about that vision.

Thus, Natan is also a hero who struggles to enact or maintain his own agency.  The Name constantly subjects Natan to a fate that he cannot control.  He does not get to choose when the moments of prophecy come upon him and, even when he is granted a vision of what is to come, he can only do what he thinks is best in order to bring about that period of future greatness.  Often, while the Name gives him the opportunity to see things that are denied to others, Natan is often unable to do anything to change the course of events.  He cannot, for example, do anything to stop David from his affair with Batsheva, and he similarly can do nothing to stop the assault of David’s daughter by her half-brother.  The sight is a blessing, but it is also a burden and a curse.

While this is undoubtedly a thoroughly patriarchal world, the novel does acknowledge the ways in which women in this culture are consistently devalued and treated as little more than either receptacles of male desire or as political pawns to be utilized as the men in their families see fit.  Rather than romanticizing the relationship between Batsheva and David, for example, is explicitly framed as a rape, though she ultimately realizes that she has much to gain by insinuating herself with David, and much to lose if she turns against him.  Such is the painful lesson learned by Shaul’s tragic daughter Michal, whose passionate love for David ultimately turns sour and bitter, as she is first ignored and married to another man, and then forced into a marriage with David.  Similar, though less tragic, narratives emerge around the other women in David’s life, for they all realize that their political and personal well-being, as well as that of their children, relies upon their proximity to the king and their ability to stay in his good graces.

If I have one complaint about the novel, it’s that it seems a bit too short.  There are some characters who ultimately fade into the background, never to be seen again (most notably Michal).  However, the brevity of the novel also gives it an narrative urgency that keeps the reader arrested and invested until the very end.

Once again, Brooks prove herself to be a virtuoso with the written word, her words as haunting and evocative as many of the passages of the Old Testament upon which it is based.  There are some books that are simply an aesthetic pleasure to read, and this happens to be one of them.  This novel is a must for those seeking a truly beautiful novel that brings the world of the ancient Hebrews to piercing and brilliant life.

Score:  10/10

My thanks to NetGalley for providing me with a copy of this novel to review.

Screening History : The Lion in Winter (1968)

I recently had the pleasure of watching the extraordinary 1968 film The Lion In Winter, which relates a (fictional) meeting of the medieval Plantagenet family during the winter of 1183 at Chinon.  Eleanor of Aquitaine (Katherine Hepburn) is released from imprisonment by her estranged husband Henry II (Peter O’Toole) for this family gathering, which also includes their three sons:  Richard (Anthony Hopkins), Geoffrey (John Castle) , and the dim-witted and utterly craven John (Nigel Terry) .  Also present for the festivities is the clever and manipulative Philip, King of France (Timothy Dalton) and his sister Alais (Jane Merrow), who has become Henry’s mistress and hopes to one day become his new wife.  The scheming and plotting never lets up, but eventually Henry lets his sons go and returns his wife (somewhat reluctantly) to her imprisonment.

Beneath all of the sniping and incredibly witty dialogue (I have rarely seen a film so eminently quotable), there simmers a cauldron of family resentment and cruelty that always threatens to break out into open political rebellion.  This is an enormously powerful family, yet it is also one that seems unable to control its own internal dynamics, let alone the substantial domains over which they are supposed to be overlords.  O’Toole’s Henry is too hot-headed and almost hysterical to be an effective agent of control, and Hepburn’s Eleanor too full of bile and bitterness to resist the urge to needle and nettle him at every turn, driving him to ever greater and more intense fits of pique and rage.  The films is a somewhat terrifying glimpse into the machinations, recriminations, and plotting that can threaten to destroy even the most powerful of families and dynasties.

It is also a searing portrait of one of the greatest and most tragic love affairs of the medieval world.  Eleanor and Henry turned no few heads when they married, considering the fact that Eleanor had been married to the French king immediately prior to her union with the future English king made no secret of her general unhappiness with the French Louis’ bedroom performance.  Theirs was truly a marriage of equals, and this is reflected in this film, as Eleanor/Katherine, despite her imprisonment, nevertheless gives Henry/Peter everything she’s got, maneuvering and manipulating their children in order to hit him where it hurts the most:  his legacy.

This film is also one of those that I would define as exquisitely queer, one of those films that wears its queerness unapologetically on its sleeve.  This ranges from Eleanor, who is as bitchy a stage queen as has ever graced a film (Hepburn is clearly having the time of her life in the role) to the tragically flawed relationship between the emotionally distraught Richard and the cold and cruel Philip (who disavows that he ever loved the English prince, a claim that we in the audience are left to doubt).  There is something undeniably appealing about the French King, due in no small part to Dalton’s almost feline features, which lend the flawed monarch a measure of grace that helps to ameliorate his obvious delight in cruelly torturing the sexually conflicted Richard.

Perhaps surprisingly, Lion does manage to say something about the medieval world, a world full lot plotting, backbiting, and violence. For better or worse, the Plantagenet dynasty was one of the most powerful and influential of the Middle Ages, and this film offers a searing portrait of the convoluted loves, hates, and fears that drove these men and women to commit acts of betrayal that would shape the fortunes of England and of Europe, for generations to come.  Indeed, it is important to remember that the Plantagenet dynasty would rule England until Richard III, who lost his crown to the Tudor prince Henry (later King Henry VII) on Bosworth Field.

Just as importantly, it also suggests that the movements of the great and powerful are often as hopelessly banal and selfish as their common-born compatriots.  These figures may be larger than life–and the opening credit sequence helps to underscore this, as well as a measure of the alien-ness of the medieval world–but they are also flesh and and blood, with all of the sexual energies that such flawed fleshly beings frequently have.  The tragedy that unfolds, then, is not just a matter of family, it is also a harbinger of the strife and bloodshed that will continue to tear England apart.  In the final analysis, this film suggests that sex, that most ineffable and terrifying of human traits, that drives the engines of history.

Score:  10/10