Tuesday, December 29, 2009

More than a little familiar?

Has it ever occurred to anyone else that Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei looks like Obi-Wan Kenobi with a longer beard and a black turban?

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A medieval murder mystery begging to be written

It has been my experience that many medieval murder mysteries are set in the 14th century, often with the plague in the background. This makes them hardly medieval by my standards, but let that go. What you actually may be interested in is a free plot, which I found lurking on my hard disk. I think it's from a source collection on war in the later Middle Ages, but it is unlabeled. The story as we have it here is not a murder mystery, it's just a murder committed at the orders of important men in one of the great churches of England in a time of political turmoil, the year 1377 when Edward III died and his young grandson, Richard II, succeeded to the throne but not to actual power.

Robert Hawley and John Shakell, two esquires, had captured the count of Denia, a Spanish grandee, at the battle of Nájera [1367]. The count was allowed to go home on leaving his eldest son Alphonso as a hostage. In 1377 the money was said to be ready, and the English government therefore tried to get possession of the hostage. Hawley and Shakell refused to give him up, whereupon they were imprisoned in the Tower of London. Some months later they escaped and took sanctuary at Westminster. The Constable of the Tower followed them in force. Shakell was recaptured; but Hawley resisted and was killed in the choir of the Abbey, during the celebration of High Mass. Shakell remained in the Tower until 1379, when he came to terms with the government, and agreed to give up his hostage in return for his own release.

There are actually lots of documents on this case, because it went on and on.

Maybe it should be a movie -- can't you see the two hardbitten squires fighting for the "Treasure of the Count of Denia?"

Image: The Choir of Westminster Abbey in 1848. In the 14th century it would have had no pews.

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Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Do androids dream of electric sheep?

That was the answer to a quiz question on CBC Radio One's comedy show The Debaters this morning. It is the title of the Philip K. Dick novel that was the inspiration for Bladerunner.

I read the Dick book in a fresh hardback copy right out of the public library in 1967. I wonder what my teenaged self would have thought about today's little incident.

Time travel, even if it is one way, is interesting and puzzling. Reference: The Door into Summer, set in the remote year 1970.

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Sunday, November 15, 2009

Taqwacore: The birth of punk Islam (2009)

Last night I saw this movie at the Windsor International Film Festival. Taqwacore is supposed to be a combination of "taqwa" ( God consciousness) and "hard core punk." I think the word is an invention of Michael Muhammed Knight, a young Muslim from New York State whose immediate family is Roman Catholic. At some point in his life he thought, "What if a bunch of musicians got a house together and lived the true Muslim/punk life?" He wrote a novel called Taqwacore about the possibilities, and soon enough he was the center of a network of American Islamic punks who wanted to do it for real. Taqwacore the movie tells the story of what happened next, in the USA and Pakistan.

One of the most memorable scenes in the movie shows the band, of course called Taqwacore, playing for a convention of middle-aged, mainstream American Muslims in Chicago, who are so offended by the hard-core presentation, and the use of a female lead singer, that they call the police to eject the band. At the same time, all the 15-year-old daughters, dressed in hijab, are giggling and smiling and grooving to this rebellious music.

And then there is the confidence that these Americans have that they can take the true spirit of Islam to Pakistan, again with mixed results.

I found the whole thing as American as... Walt Whitman and Jack Kerouac. It's one more version of On the Road.

The trailer is here. Do have a look.

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Sunday, June 28, 2009

El Cid (1961)

If a poll could be held of actual medieval people, they would chose it as the best movie ever.

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Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Beowulf: Prince of the Geats, Nazis, and Odinists

Richard Scott Nokes' article on an unexpected set of reactions to the casting of a black actor as Beowulf in Beowulf: Prince of the Geats is now available on line.
It is a journalist's cliche that only weird English profs (and not all of them) care about Beowulf; and they masochistically inflict it on their defenseless students. The flood of Beowulf material in recent years, in movies and elsewhere, blows that throw-away out of the water.

Thanks to Modern Medieval for the heads-up.

Image: Jayshan Jackson as Beowulf.

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Wednesday, May 20, 2009

"Hands-on undergraduate education"

Always a good thing, where possible. A film short at the OU site is here. "OU" here is Ohio University in Athens, Ohio; Patrick Muhlberger is a relative.

I found it odd that one speaker referred to the USA as "here in the States." An undercover Canadian?

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Sunday, May 17, 2009

Robin and Marian (1976): the middle-aged Middle Ages

Robin Hood comes back to England after 20 years away, crusading and fighting in France, and finds that his old love, Marian, is now an abbess. And she is not young, or particularly impressed by his devil-may-care attitude. Everybody else Robin knew back when is old or dead. Nevertheless, he proceeds to try to live up to his own self-image and the even bigger legend that has grown up around him in his old neighborhood. The results are tragic, though derived from an actual Robin Hood ballad.

This is a remarkable movie. It stars Sean Connery, Robert Shaw, and a luminous Audrey Hepburn. The screenplay author is James Goldman, who wrote the Lion in Winter and They Might Be Giants. The director was Richard Lester, who gives this material an unheroic treatment similar to that which he gave to the Three Musketeers and the Four Musketeers a few years earlier. The physical setting, the buildings and the costumes are very good if not perfect. What really makes the movie is the psychological reality, of Richard Lionheart dying of his own greed and determination to be a king, or the contradictory impulses that drive Marian's behavior.

I probably should not say that this is a movie about middle-aged people for middle-aged people, but it is, and I mean it as a compliment. I certainly can't think of a better historical movie of this sort.

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Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Reminder from the Star Trek universe

Torture, taking glee in torture, and justifying torture are characteristics of the bad guys.

Image: on a more cheerful note, isn't it great when moviemakers now need to depict the Saturn system, they can accurately do so?

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Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The 300 Spartans (1962) and Charlie Wilson's War (2007): two historical movies

Last night I took it easy and watched two movies: The 300 Spartans, the 60s film that inspired the Frank Miller graphic novel and the recent movie The 300, and the much more recent Charlie Wilson's War, which tells the story of a Texas congressman who took the initiative in financing covert operations to counter the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, with, as IMDB says, unexpected consequences. They really provided an interesting contrast in filmic style.

I saw The 300 about a year ago and enjoyed it, though I did not think it was a particularly serious movie. Lots of perhaps unintentional laughs in that treatment of the battle of Thermopylae. Certainly in decades to come, people will kill themselves laughing at the cultural hangups revealed in the movie. But it was enjoyable. At least once.

Like Frank Miller, I saw the older movie treatment as a child and I wondered how the previous film would hold up. The answer is, not very well at all. It had its virtues: Greek landscapes, reasonably good depiction of military operations, some good sets (for instance, Xerxes' royal pavilions). The story, however, was slow and plodding and really not very much truer to the real situation than the Frank Miller version. It was a movie made up of old Hollywood clichés of character, and if you have seen enough old movies you could've written it yourself. My guess is that very few people today would write something similar from scratch. The year 1962 as seen through this particular lens, seemed a long way back.

I am not familiar enough with the small details of US policy towards the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan to critique Charlie Wilson's War as a depiction of history, but it certainly is a modern movie. Movies go a lot faster now, they are much more efficient in setting the scene and characters and establishing plot points. Of course this movie was produced by Mike Nichols and written by Aaron Sorkin, who are consummate pros, but what they are professional at is noteworthy.

Interestingly enough, this weekend I also saw the classic British flick Darling (1965), when Julie Christie burst upon the film scene and won an Academy award for one of her first roles. She was fabulous but so was everything else. It had that same efficiency of pacing that I noted in Charlie Wilson's War. Perhaps someone better acquainted with the history of film could tell me how unusual those qualities were when they appeared in Darling.

As for yesterday's two films as historical films, let me quote something that a friend of mine posted at her blog two days ago. Sandra Dodd said:
So I'm sewing and watching Brother Sun, Sister Moon, a movie [about St. Francis and St. Clare -- SM] I will love for life despite that criticism of those who can't appreciate religious-art in the form of a movie. Had it been a painting with discrepancies from the historical record, or a sculpture, or a medal, no one would care. But make it HUGE, with real scenery and real medieval buildings and costumes and music, and people say "the armor is crap" and "Clare wasn't that age," and blah blah. ART. Art.
You know, I hear a lot of that, too, and I too get impatient.

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Saturday, January 03, 2009

Beowulf and Grendel (2005)

For the first 10 or 15 minutes, I thought this movie was a dead loss. I had ordered it from Zip.ca almost as a matter of self-defense. Since the movie was an Icelandic-Canadian co-production and I am a Canadian medievalist with lots of re-creationist friends I felt sure that eventually one of them would pin me down and expect me to have an opinion about this movie and how it compared to the big-budget Hollywood production of a couple years back. A short way into the movie, I was cursing myself for feeling that need, which had trapped me into watching a complete dud. The introduction was completely incomprehensible, in part because the mixture of odd accents among the actors. I did not notice any Icelandic accents, but there were plenty of what seemed to be thick Irish and Scottish ones. Even though I know the story of Beowulf quite well I was getting completely lost.

But as we went on I got more used to it and eventually it won me over. This movie had some of the most believable early medieval armor and costuming, and the landscape may not look very much like Denmark but it evoked a premodern era very strongly. The acting is good and the story is a success on its own terms. This movie actually is less faithful to the poem than the big-budget one, but in some ways that was an advantage. It is not like the big-budget version really caught medieval personalities and ways of thinking; this one may not have either, but to my modern sensibility at least there was a sense of reality about the entire picture. One instance is that Grendel is not a CGI monster of uncertain origins, but a big troll-like human being, who comes from a tribe of troll-like human beings. He's strong and ugly and dangerous but not superhuman. The Beowulf poet might not approve of this treatment, but he is in good company. The people who made the movie don't approve of the poet's presentation either, and they felt free to introduce subplots and different perspectives. I am not sure how strongly to recommend this movie, but if you are interested in reasonable film treatments of the early Middle Ages, you will probably find something worthwhile in this.

Image: A drunk, demoralized King Hrothgar and his stalwart queen.

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Alexander (2004)

I saw this movie last night on the Canadian History Channel, and for the life of me I cannot fathom the denunciation that rained down on it when it was new. Sure it skips around A's career, leaves things out, has a family soap opera at the center of it, and shows the title character as a forward-thinking, enlightened ruler, but surely we've all seen that before?

On the plus side, it had fewer battle scenes than we might have been subjected to, decent acting (especially from the Macedonian nobles), and really good landscapes and sets.

And there are perfect moments, as when Alexander and his men enter Babylon (especially the non-salacious harem scene), or when, at the battle of Gaugamela, a crazy-eyed, blood-soaked Alexander screams in frustration at a retreating Darius. Now that was an Alexander I can believe in!

Image: the royal family of Macedon.

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Tuesday, November 18, 2008


From the New York Times: filmmakers rally to save "meaning," blame audience for sad state of movie storytelling.


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Sunday, September 14, 2008

The Rejects

The Los Angeles Times has an interesting article about the most popular Iranian movie ever, The Rejects, which concerns the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s. Even more interesting is the video feature which shows clips from both Iranian and Iraqi war films. Most of the students in my course on the history of Islamic civilization, I bet, are probably not even aware of this war, but the article and film clips give you an idea of how huge this to people in the region.

Image: Iranian troops in the "big war."

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Friday, September 05, 2008

The Face

I remarked some weeks ago about the amazing things Kenneth Branagh does with his "ordinary English face." What about the late Alec Guinness, seen above as the spy George Smiley in the brilliant 6-part series Smiley's People (1982)? Smiley, appropriately given his profession, is a character who defies characterization, and Guinness evoked that and the whole secret world of spies by doing very little with his face except look out of it. Oh, but look out of it he surely did!

I should say that just about everyone else was just about as good.

Find Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, and Smiley's People and view them over a week for a matchless cinematic experience. Don't frustrate yourself trying to follow the plot -- you'll probably get it all in the end. Just soak in it.

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Thursday, August 14, 2008

Hamlet (1996)

I just saw Kenneth Branagh's film Hamlet once again, and it holds up.

I thought Derek Jacobi's Claudius was brilliant and made the usurper a truly central character.

And having seen Branagh first as Hamlet and then (in the DVD intro) as himself, I was amazed by the magic power he has to turn his ordinary English self into such eye-rivetting characters.

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Sunday, July 06, 2008

Russia's steampunk future

English Russia says:

"Some say that Russian Post Office is considering on using special Postal Dirigibles on the distant Siberian parts of Russia and those are leaked project drawings for this project."

The designers seem to have taken the whole steampunk aesthetic to heart, as these pictures indicate.

Steampunk is a retrospective futurism: stories featuring technology as it might have developed with airships rather than airplanes, in a world that hadn't yet gotten to the First World War, or never did. The movie The Wild, Wild West is a good example; League of Extraordinary Gentlemen a not so good one.

Note in this picture the Golden Compass in front of the building?
That movie, too, has steampunk elements.

Homage, I believe that's called.

Update: Eventually steampunk turned into this. Ah, nostalgia.

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Friday, March 21, 2008

Stage Beauty (2004)

I never heard of this movie until Dr. Cameron McFarlane of Nipissing's Department of English Studies offered a paper on it in the History Department's seminar seried. I couldn't make the seminar, but his abstract was enough for me to hunt down a copy, which I have just watched. Am I ever glad I did. This is a topnotch historical movie with a serious theme but lots of fun, too.

The protagonist is a star actor in the time of Charles II who has spent his whole career portraying women, a specialized but essential skill since women are forbidden to appear on the stage. He has a young, good-looking female dresser who wants to act. In a comedy of errors, he loses his career and identity when women are allowed to act and men are forbidden to take crossdressing roles. And she, who does not have his training or talent, becomes a star instead.

That, and much, much more. Highly recommended. Thanks, Cameron!

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Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Roman games

Ancient Civilizations students who want to follow up on today's lecture on The Arena might want to look at this book in our collection: Gladiators and caesars : the power of spectacle in ancient Rome edited by Eckart Köhne and Cornelia Ewigleben.

It is well illustrated and has insights born from systematic re-enactment efforts.

Film clips from the Ben Hur chariot race sequences from 1925 and 1959 can be found at Youtube.com. Those must certainly count as re-enactments.

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Thursday, January 10, 2008

Rome (2005 & 2007)

Since Christmas I've had the opportunity to see all of both seasons of the HBO series Rome and I was just as impressed by the entire work as I was by the two episodes I saw back in November. I am not a classicist or a Roman-era archaeologist, so I may have missed some things, but it's the most amazing visual re-creation of a distant time and place I've ever seen. The writing and acting were mostly excellent. There were very few places where I thought the producers and directors were pandering to modern prejudices and preconceptions. All in all, one of the best video presentations of anything I've ever seen. For instance, the episode where Pompey dies was riveting. There was so much in it, and it worked perfectly.

I had my disappointments. In an effort to avoid Cranky Academic Syndrome, I'll mention only one. There were no Greek elements in the presentation of Egypt, Alexandria, or Cleopatra's court. It wouldn't have taken more than a few Greek references to make me happy.

Warning: Rome is full of sex, brutality, and a fair amount of brutal sex. And very few characters, even your favorites, abstain from doing something horrible, generally murder.

Image: Kerry Condon playing Octavia; there are worse things than being a parasitic, drugged-out daughter of the upper class.

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Thursday, December 27, 2007

The Golden Compass (2007)

I saw The Golden Compass this afternoon, and though some of my friends and correspondents hated the movie, I rather liked it.

I think I was in a good position to like it: I read the book and liked it, but not so recently that I could remember vast numbers of details that got left out or changed. Also, I thought the film was impressive visually. For instance, the docks and the dockyard neighborhood in Trollesund was just perfect. Things like that make movies for me, if there is quality in the other elements. Last, I really liked the remote Arctic setting of much of the book, and some of that was done very effectively in the movie.

I'm not particularly interested in arguing about the virtues and vices of GC, but I will remark on the fact that this was another example of Hollywood steampunk; steampunk being a literary/movie SF/fantasy genre where the present is one side or the other of the year 1900, and the futuristic elements are supplied by technology that is "super-science" by the standards of the 1890s or the 1900s. There are huge engines and electricity and advanced weaponry that Jules Verne could have believed in or made up, and given the huge size of his output, probably did. Oh, yes, there are plenty of brass scientific instruments, golden compasses and whatnot. And airships.

The popularity of this genre (which includes on the movie side the failed League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and the much more enjoyable Wild, Wild West) is kind of curious. Another example of the backward-looking nature of the "speculative" imagination which currently refuses to speculate?

I'm tempted to say that this scaredy-cat looking at a Paleo-Future that's already long been superceded is a delayed reaction to World War I, an acknowledgment that modern culture went off the rails then. Who could argue with that? But of course that's probably too-clever baloney. The real World War II with its real nuclear bombing and fire bombing before that and its vast death camps didn't scare SF writers off, from utopian or dystopian speculation, or more realistic future construction. It spurred them on, gave them a sense of mission.

I think it's probably unfair to categorize the Golden Compass the book as steampunk, but the movie is certainly an excellent example of it.

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Monday, November 26, 2007

My Beowulf review

My review of the Beowulf movie isn't going to be very long. It wasn't quite as bad as I thought it would be in the first five minutes or so. The initial emphasis on special effects ("Lookit what I can do, mom!") I found really tiresome (I liked the battle with the dragon later, fantastic as it was) and I wasn't very keen on the drunken Hrothgar. However, I did not want to leave the theater at any point after that. Not too bad for a Hollywood movie; but despite its pretensions (Neil Gaiman! Neil Gaiman!) it was a pretty much a Hollywood movie.

Rather than say more, I'll refer you to the three best reviews (best in the sense of being the most thoughtful and in-depth), at least two of them by Anglo-Saxonists (one's pseudonymous). These are not humorless, uptight specialists. One was delighted to say, for instance,

Angelina Jolie is doing philology!!! Angelina Jolie is doing philology naked!!!

(Does it get any better than that?)
but all three share the conviction that movie scriptwriters seldom have the subtlety of the medieval sources they sometimes plunder. Hardly news, that.

Here are the three reviews:

Michael Drout at Wormtalk and Slugspeak
Richard Scott Nokes at Unlocked Wordhoard
Dr. Virago at Quod She

And if you want more, see an earlier comment on this blog.

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Wednesday, November 21, 2007

That Beautiful Somewhere on Canadian TV

From NU's Big Name Novelist/Film Producer, Bill Plumstead:

The Canadian Television debut of That Beautiful Somewhere starring Roy Dupuis ("The Rocket," "Shake Hands with the Devil"), Jane McGregor and Gordon Tootoosis,will be broadcast this Friday night, November 23, at 9:00 pm on the Movie Network's two channels: MFest and HD. It was filmed in Temagami and North Bay.

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Saturday, November 17, 2007


I haven't seen a review of Beowulf from a person whose taste I know, and I can't figure out from Rotten Tomatoes whether it's going to be worthwhile.

I am fascinated, though, by the 3-star review from Roger Ebert (via RT):


BY ROGER EBERT / November 15, 2007

In the name of the mighty Odin, what this movie needs is an audience that knows how to laugh. Laugh, I tell you, laugh! Has the spirit of irony been lost in the land? By all the gods, if it were not for this blasted infirmity that the Fates have dealt me, you would have heard from me such thunderous roars as to shake the very Navy Pier itself down to its pillars in the clay.

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Friday, November 09, 2007

Elizabeth: the Golden Age (2007) -- a killer review...

...one for the ages.

I haven't seen this movie and after this comment from a friend I'm in no hurry:

"Elizabeth" is to Elizabethan history as "Muppet Treasure Island" is to ... Elizabethan history.

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Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Rome (2005)

Thanks to NU's Classics Club, I saw the first two episodes of the mini-series Rome. I was impressed the minute the initial credits came on, which made me think that this is surely the era when animators rule the screen. As a whole it was perhaps the best recreation of ancient scenes I can remember, though the early-70s Three Musketeers and Four Musketeers were comparable, and the recently-seen Joseph Andrews and The Duellists are comparable.

Image: Polly Walker playing Atia of the Julii, the mother of the emperor Augustus.

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Thursday, October 25, 2007

300 finally runs me down!

The movie 300 finally tracked me down in my own lair, in the form of a free showing sponsored by NU's Classics Club.

I have to say that it had a certain quality, a watchable quality, while it was on. Twenty-four hours later I'm not very pleased with what came across as the Battle of the Pelennor Fields with more body piercings.

The very big plus side was the way 300 put a graphic novel on a screen (not so big a screen in my case). It looked like there were no more than 4 colors used. Everything was visually simple and dramatic. I am sure the makers were aiming for this look and they have reason to be pleased with themselves.

On the other hand, I think I must be getting tired of stories that feature blood and muscle taking on sub-human enemies who do evil for incomprehensible reasons. Maybe it's because I recently saw Black Hawk Down for the first time? That was a good movie, too, but the wave upon wave of AK-47-wielding Somalis were no more convincing than Xerxes' boys (?).

On the third hand...I have to admit that though there was little connection between the movie and Herodotus' account of the Persian wars (except for the use of the words Sparta, Persia and Greece), 300 was closer to the spirit of H's History than one might guess.

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Saturday, October 13, 2007

The Last Hurrah (1958)

Or "the last HOO-rah," as Spencer Tracy said it in the flick.

Long-time readers may remember that I've been reading, off and on, classic American political novels (suggestions welcome), and if possible following up with the movie.

One of the first books I read, which I seem not to have blogged about, was The Last Hurrah by Edwin O'Connor. It's about an old-style Irish-American city politician (read "Boston" and a real mayor named Curley) who fights and loses his last campaign to a young nobody with a good-for-TV face and lots of establishment money behind him. And then he dies.

Skeffington (as the mayor is called in the book) knows that it's his last go, win or lose, and confides in his nephew about who he rose from the slums to be a champion of the old immigrant population. The reader enjoys the tour of the city and witnesses the obsolescent ward-heeling style of politics with the nephew, and has the additional pleasure of having it told in the best Irish English -- not music-hall brogues, but the real eloquence. Not as good as All the King's Men (what is?), but plenty good.

The movie is also a treat. Reasons? Directed by John Ford in a largely faithful manner, with Spencer Tracy as Skeffington. Tracy does it perfectly. With due respect to the rest of the cast, Tracy plays the role of Edwin O'Connor's prose and dialogue, and is up to the task.

Image: Tracy caricatured by Hirschfeld, the famous New Yorker magazine artist.

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Friday, October 12, 2007

Beowulf: A new verse translation, by Seamus Heaney

I've been taking my own advice and polishing up my knowledge of Beowulf the poem in anticipation of Beowulf the movie. And as I began to read it I realized I probably have read no more than excerpts since I was an undergraduate taking a course in "Medieval Epic" (B and Roland in 10 weeks.)

This time I read Seamus Heaney's much-ballyhooed verse translation from 1999. And I find it no wonder that it was ballyhooed, it is wonderful.

One example to lure you to pick it up (NU's library has it, or will once I return it): Heaney, a Nobel Prize-winning poet, explains that he needed a way to "tune" his translation, and turned to "a familiar local voice," one which belonged to relatives he once called "big voiced Scullions," Irishmen who had weighty way of speaking that gave dignity to the simplest statements. Heaney used their speech as a model, beginning at the beginning, with the Old English word Hwaet!

Conventional renderings of hwaet, the first word of the poem, tend towards the archaic literary, with "lo" and "hark" and "behold" and "attend" and -- more colloquially -- "listen" being some of the solutions offered previously. But in Hiberno-English Scullionspeak, the particle "so" came naturally to the rescue, because in that idiom "so" operates as an expression which obliterates all previous discourse and narrative, and at the same time functions as an exclamation calling for immediate attention.
I've heard that usage, too. With that insight, Heaney produced this:

So. The Spear-Danes in days gone by
and the kings who ruled them had courage and greatness.
We have heard of those princes' heroic campaigns.

There was Shield Sheafson, scourge of many tribes ,
a wrecker of mead-benches, rampaging among foes.
This terror of the hall-troops had come far.
A foundling to start with, he would flourish later on
as his powers waxed and his worth was proved.
In the end each clan on the outlying coasts
beyond the whale-road had to yield to him
and begin to pay tribute. That was one good king.

Wow! "That was one good king." I can almost hear one of my country neighbors saying that!

Here's Heaney's version of lines 2177-2189:

Thus Beowulf bore himself with valour;
he was formidable in battle yet behaved with honour
and took no advantage; never cut down
a comrade who was drunk, kept his temper
and warrior that he was, watched and controlled
his God-sent strength and his outstanding
natural powers. He had been poorly regarded
for a long time, was taken by the Geats
for less than he was worth: and their lord too
had never much esteemed him in the mead-hall.
They firmly believed that he lacked force,
that the prince was a weakling; but presently
every affront to his deserving was reversed.
Fresh yet redolent of legendary antiquity. Fabulous, fabulous mastery of the English language. Out of Ireland -- again -- of course.

Image: A plate from a Swedish helmet showing warriors wearing boar-helmets, often mentioned in Beowulf. Look closely and you can see the last visible dog... From Beowulf in Cyberspace.

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Thursday, October 11, 2007

Beowulf basics in preparation for the Beowulf movie

This is the year of naked and semi-naked heroes and villains in Hollywood movies of classic historical and legendary stories. First 300 on the Persian War, upcoming Beowulf, a big-budget version of the best Old English poem. Because these really are classic stories, there's been a lot of debate about them, even though we still only have trailers for Beowulf.

If by some chance you are a little vague (or maybe a lot vague) on the story and the background of Beowulf, an expert Anglo-Saxonist and Tolkien scholar, Michael Drout, has a FAQ on Beowulf.

Thanks to Scott Nokes at Unlocked Wordhoard (one of the coolest blog names in the universe; see his explanation) for drawing my attention to Drout's piece. (BTW, see Drout's blog for another really amazing blog name.)

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Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Beowulf movie

I neglected to give a link to the upcoming Beowulf movie. Once again, it seems kind of pointless to put an image here, when the link leads to two trailers and a TV spot.

Update: And here, Nekkid Beowulf (I love Matthew Gabriele's comment).

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Monday, September 24, 2007

Joseph Andrews (1977)

Joseph Andrews is an 18th century novel by Henry Fielding, who wrote Tom Jones, which was adapted into one of the best films ever made. This adaptation, too, is a lot of fun. Who could resist broad humor, great costumes, children kidnapped by gypsies, rich ladies lusting after their footmen, the Hellfire Club or something very like it, innocents abroad and abused, and a happy ending for just about everyone.

There are plenty of detailed period scenes, not just great houses and fancy carriages on the road. One great touch you might never expect: some of the action takes place in the fashionable spa of Bath. Not only does the movie show people soaking in the Roman baths, but all the streets are full of construction workers and equipment, building that spa (which was in fact done in the 18th century).

Must read the book.

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Wednesday, September 12, 2007

That Beautiful Somewhere on DVD

About the time I came to Nipissing University, about 15 years ago, another prof here, Bill Plumstead, wrote a novel set in Northern Ontario, Loon. Somehow I put off reading it for about a decade, but when I finally got around to it, I loved the book. When I went to congratulate Bill on his accomplishment, I found him sitting in his office contemplating a movie version.

Well, the movie version, That Beautiful Somewhere, has been made and despite the fact that it is in some ways quite different than Loon, I liked the movie a great deal. It had me on the edge of my seat by the end.

Only a few of my readers got any chance at all to see it in the theater. But in this modern age, small but good movies have another way of worming their way into your hearts. Bill tells me that the DVD version will be released in Canada and the US as of September 25th. He goes on to say: For myself, I add: maybe you'd like the book, too, if you can find it..

Orders can be placed through Amazon.ca in Canada (saving a few bucks) and Amazon.com in the USA. The Canadian version includes an interview with Roy Dupuis where he talks about his interests in films and his environmental work with the Rivers Foundation (saving Quebec Rivers from corporate harnessing and exploitation), which he is virtually the biggest financial contributor of. It's a wonderful interview.

I add: maybe you'd like the book, too, if you can find it.

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Saturday, July 07, 2007

Advise and Consent (1962)

Last night I watched the movie version of Allen Drury's 1959 novel of the Senate, which I discussed here a few days ago. At first I was drawing unfavorable comparisons to the book. What particularly bothered me was that there was so little time available to draw the characters I was already familiar with. But eventually I got in synch with the movie logic and found that the movie worked well. This could be a textbook example of how you can turn a big, well-known novel into a movie without trashing the original story.

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Tuesday, June 19, 2007

The Vikings (1958)

I just re-viewed this movie for the first time in a very long time. I first saw it when the major American networks started showing recent releases in prime time. I loved it then, but now I'm a medieval historian! Would it be a groaner or a joke?

Well, it's still a fun movie, and more. Though the plot and the characterizations are in the authentic Hollywood tradition, it's got many virtues rare in big budget semi-historical movies. The landscapes and the Viking ships, village, meadhall, equipment and clothing are either good or excellent. (The English stuff is more uneven, a mixture of the 9th and 14th centuries.) There are many scenes that are simply beautiful. (For instance: the preparation of the Viking ship burial.) Even the big battle is more believable than, say, the Battle of Helm's Deep or the recent assault on Troy.

All in all, a movie where the guy in charge really cared about doing it right. That guy was the star, Kirk Douglas.

Two other points: yet another medieval movie where the Bayeux Tapestry stands in for another period. (Others include Mel Gibson's version of Hamlet and El Cid, where noble ladies in Denmark and Castile embroider it in their spare time.) Will there ever be a feature film on the Norman Conquest?

Second, another movie where Tony Curtis wears short, short tunics.

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Sunday, May 20, 2007

The movie "300" -- not fantastical enough

If there are any student in NU's upcoming course on Ancient Civilizations reading this blog -- instead of having fun in the sun -- here's a topic worth thinking about.

Will McLean in his blog Commonplace Book says you shouldn't be thinking about ancient Greece when you watch the recent movie on "Thermopylae," 300. Lots of people have said the same but Will provides us with a science-fiction rationale that makes sense of the 300 scenario -- sort of.

That's amusing in its way but then Will goes on to make quite a profound point. When the Frank Millers of the world try to make an edgy fantasy of the past, they seldom are fantastical enough. This analysis is not offered in a mean-spirited way, but with full acknowledgement that for any author, filmmaker, or other artist, recreating even the known aspects of the past is hard -- especially if you harbor any hope that your audience will be able to relate to the finished product. This is a really fine post.

Update: link to the entry is now fixed.

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Friday, April 27, 2007

The Athenian navy: could they beat the 300?

I am going to start by pasting in a post from Adrian Murdoch's blog, Bread and Circuses and my own reply to that post:

The faculty of biological science at Leeds has some interesting research about the fitness of ancient rowers:

We may not be as fit as the people of ancient Athens, despite all that modern diet and training can provide, according to research by University of Leeds exercise physiologist, Dr Harry Rossiter.

Dr Rossiter measured the metabolic rates of modern athletes rowing a reconstruction of an Athenian trireme, a 37m long warship powered by 170 rowers seated in three tiers. Using portable metabolic analysers, he measured the energy consumption of a sample of the athletes powering the ship over a range of different speeds to estimate the efficiency of the human engine of the warship.

By comparing these findings to classical texts that record details of their endurance, he realised that the rowers of ancient Athens - around 500BC - would had to have been highly elite athletes, even by modern day standards.

Thanks fo AJ for passing this over.

And here's what I said, more or less:

[The demos (common citizens) who were paid to row Athenian warships] have often been accused of being a belligerent, imperialistic group because more war meant more pay (and presumably more profit from the empire).

If these guys were a large group of physical fitness fanatics, too, you can see how they might be a rather fearsome political pressure group.
Would you want to face these guys in a heated debate in the assembly -- 6000 overexcited Greeks all determined to exercise the sovereignty of the people?

I still have not seen 300, but when it came out lots of people remarked on the physiques of the Spartan heroes, and somebody said, roughly, that beautiful architecture and literary debates and even democracy were all very well, but sometimes you needed people who could give the opposition a kick where it counted for something.

Even at the time I thought, "Friend, you have no appreciation for the dynamic of Athenian democracy;" now I think, "Friend, who had better sixpacks, the rowers or the infantrymen?"

Bread and Circuses is well worth a look for all sorts of ancient material, especially concerning the Later Roman Empire. See this on a movie on the last emperor in the west.

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