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Friday, May 28, 2004

Cows on Parade

I hope you have/had a good Memorial Day weekend. Traditionally, I would be heading out to Indiana today to spend the weekend at the lake, but events of the past year have put the kibosh on that plan of action. Hi girls! So now I'm not sure what's up.

This weekend, Chicago hosts the IML festivities, otherwise known as I'm In Hell. For those of you not in the city or not in the know, IML is International Mr. Leather, an annual beauty pageant in which nancy boys dress like bikers and cowboys for fun and prizes. I've written about it before; I'll find the old article and post it on the site for your edification. The event itself is complemented by a host of activities, both official and un, with such names as Bears in Leather, Masters And slaves (sic) Together, and the Scorched Earth Party. There's even Leather Recovery, "a 24-hour Safe Space for those in recovery to take advantage of as a refuge from becoming overwhelmed or triggered by people & surroundings." Needless to say, the place abounds in tanned hides, both animal and human. This may be the only time of the year you can wear a hat, vest and boots - and nothing more - and be considered well-dressed. IML always takes place over Memorial Day Weekend, in honor, I suppose, of the cows who have given their lives for the cause.

The only part of IML I ever attend is the Leather Market, which is a sort of swap meet cum flea market cum Tupperware party for those interested in fetish gear. It's creepy, but fascinating, and the only place in town you can buy his 'n hers chaps, hand carved paddles and paint-on latex all in one spot. Since I won't be in Indiana, you may be able to catch me down there one day.

I also plan to see The Day After Tomorrow, maybe on Saturday. This was more amusing Thursday, when I could say I was seeing The Day After Tomorrow the day after tomorrow. What can I say, I'm mad for summer flicks. I'll let you know how it goes.

Thursday, May 20, 2004

The Fall of Troy

"What can you say about an Asia Minor civilization that died?"

I saw Troy last weekend. It wasn't nearly as bad as I was expecting. This is not to say that it was good, but that it is certainly a film that benefits from diminished expectations. When I first saw the trailers, I thought, "This could be fun." Stupid, cheesy fun, but fun nonetheless. Then the movie came out and the reviews started coming in, and it didn't look promising. But, as you know, I've been reading the Iliad, and I was curious to see what they had done with it. And I knew it wouldn't be the Iliad (I know Homer, and you, sir, are no Homer.) so what did I have to lose?

Outside of three hours of my life.

The closing credits say that Troy is "inspired by Homer's The Iliad." "Inspired by" is an interesting choice of words. Troy is inspired by the Iliad in the same way that Van Helsing is inspired by Dracula. Some of the names are the same. Some of the characters are similar. An incident or two bears a passing resemblance to the source material. Based on the movie, I'd say the closest anyone ever came to the Iliad was perhaps Edith Hamilton's explication of it in Mythology. Or the Cliffs Notes version of her book. There are perhaps three or four sequences in the film that owe their genesis to the Iliad.

Now, as I've mentioned before, the Iliad covers only a short period of time in the Trojan War. And I'm all in favor of dramatic compression. Granted, in this case, a 10 year battle is compressed to a few weeks, but ever since Desert Storm, Americans have lost their interest in drawn out war stories. After seeing The Fellowship of the Ring, I re-read that book, and was impressed with the work Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens did cutting an unwieldy book down into a fairly quick paced film. Their screenplay is an example of one of the laws of writing: Once you know the rules, you are free to break them. They approached their source material with some respect and reinterpreted it for another medium. In Troy, writer David Benioff seems to be operating from rumors he's heard about the Trojan War. Incidents are re-imagined on a whim and characters are killed off willy-nilly, so that by the end of the movie, nearly all the other tales that surround the Trojan War (i.e., much of Greek drama) are tossed by the wayside. This is the rare film that will be surprising only to people who are familiar with the story.

[Also surprising is the pronunciation of some of the names. Menelaus, Helen's husband, is generally pronounced Me-ne-LAY-us. Here, it is Me-ne-LOUSE, or worse, Me-ne-LOWW-is. Priam, the King of Troy, is PREE-am, instead of the PRY-um to which I am accustomed. Briseis, who plays a minor role in the book but a much larger one in the film, is generally Breye-SEE-is. In the movie, she is Bri-SAY-us. I bring this up as an example of the little regard with which the film's creators hold the original. If you can't be bothered to look up the proper pronunciation, what work exactly did you do?]

The first major departure from the Iliad is the dismissal of the gods. In the Iliad, as in most of Greek literature, the gods are behind the woes of mankind. The gods are the cause of the entire war, in fact, since Aphrodite offered Paris the most beautiful woman in the world as a prize if he would vote for her in a beauty pageant. Really. All through the Iliad, various gods plays their part on either side of the conflict and regularly go down to earth just to screw with people. The gods have been excised from Troy.

I've got no problem with that. Anyone who's seen Clash of the Titans knows how difficult it is to portray the gods on screen. Half the time they're lounging around in bedsheets and lacy underthings, spouting poetic doggerel in some set that is equal parts a 12 year old girl's bedroom and the Sybaris. Then they get upset and turn all CGI on your ass. In the Iliad the problem's even worse because half the time they're hying their butts down to the battlefield to pick a fight or urge some champion on to greater exploits. Sometimes they're larger than life, sometimes they're in disguise as another human, sometimes they're invisible. Who needs it? The only Zeus I want to see onscreen is Samuel L. Jackson in Die Hard III.

By omitting the gods, Benioff and director Wolfgang Petersen are in a position to find human justification for the events of the story. This would be fine is the humans were the slightest bit interesting. Troy is an unfortunate reminder that Das Boot was more than 20 years ago, and Petersen is much more comfortable with the special effects of The Perfect Storm than the human story of his earlier films. One of the strengths of the Iliad is that Homer makes his characters fully human, even though we don't get to know many of them until their moment of death. The minor characters in the Iliad are more fully rounded than the major characters in Troy. Homer's work is anti-war because we feel for the characters. Petersen's film is pro-war because stabbing people is cool!

Much has been written about Brad Pitt's newly buffed chassis on view in the flick. Indeed, Brad is buffed and blond and fully bronzed. He could be a professional wrestler. What he lacks is any authority. Oh, he kicks ass. In an early scene he leaps over a giant warrior and slides his sword into his back as if he is the butter cow at the state fair. And indeed, there is a scene in which he single handedly wipes out half the Trojan army before the other Greek ships have even landed. (This scene is necessary, even if fully invented, because Achilles then proceeds to sit out most of the rest of the war.) But this scene plays as the Burly Brawl in Matrix 2, when Keanu fights a jillion Agents Smith. There's no weight to it. Pitt is enjoyable in things like Ocean's 11 specifically because he is such a lightweight. He's the guy who gets his ass kicked by Julia Roberts in The Mexican. And one of the reasons that flick was such a mess is that his nemesis is played by James Gandolfini, who if nothing else has authority, and we want him to win.

Roger Ebert complains that Pitt is too introspective, too "modern" for the role. He asserts that "What happens in Greek myth cannot happen between psychologically plausible characters." I disagree. One reason Greek dramas are still performed today while more recent works seem hopelessly dated is that these plays do contain "psychologically plausible characters." It's the reason Shakespeare is still performed while his contemporaries (Thomas Kidd, anyone?) are not. There is indeed a larger than life component to these works that Pitt is not up for, but that's a combination of his shortcomings and those of the script. The Untouchables stars Kevin Costner and Sean Connery. Connery's goony as hell in that movie, but he blows Costner off the screen because he has authority. Pitt is Costner.

Other actors don't fare much better. Eric Bana screws up his face and tries to find his inner warrior, but to no avail. War to him seems neither a chance for glory nor a requirement of honor, but merely an onerous task. Orlando Bloom has a pretty voice and pleasant appearance and is otherwise unremarkable. Diane Kruger (Who? Exactly.) has the task of playing Helen and she acquits herself not at all. Granted, this is not entirely her fault. Helen is a role best served as an abstraction. What is the face that launched a thousand ships? Surely my conception is not the same as yours. Someone for whom you would gladly go to war might strike me as a cipher, a skank or a sorority babe bore. That's why Charlie has three Angels. With the current American emphasis on cookie cutter comeliness, I can't tell one glamour queen from the next. So let's take three previous generations' models. At the top of their form, who is most beautiful: Ingrid Bergman, Sophia Loren or Brigitte Bardot? My point exactly. Kruger has the classic beauty of a Barbie doll, with the same emotional depth. She is unfortunately cast against Saffron Burrows, who is more attractive and who brings more emotional reserves to her role of Hector's wife Andromache. Seeing the two women together merely emphasizes how stupid and shallow Paris is. Which would be a fine thing, if not for the fact that Helen is supposed to be all that. Among the younger cast, only Sean Bean, as Odysseus, brings any weight to his role. He is served by having very few lines, which allows him to suggest an insight denied Pitt and Bana. [In related news, Bean has lost the hair extensions and Bloom sports a curly black moptop, which saves the audience from the sight of a Boromir/Legolas face-off.]

Peter O'Toole plays Priam, and suggests a majesty which is lacking in the lines. O'Toole was born for this sort of nonsense (Remember My Favorite Year?) and he can carry it off in his sleep. Late in the film he has a scene with Brad Pitt, and though he may be playing Priam, Pitt is playing Pitt. He can't even seem to dredge up a playable emotion. Instead he merely furrows his (newly tanned) brows, while behind his eyes you can see the thoughts: "Jesus, Peter O'Toole is kicking my ass."

Brian Cox and Brendan Gleeson chomp some serious scenery as Agamemnon and Menelaus, respectively. Cox in particular brings a vigor to his role that is sorely missing from the rest of the proceedings. His Agamemnon loves battle: he is Robert Duvall in Apocalypse Now some 3000 years earlier. Agamemnon is happy to wage war on Troy to return Helen to Menelaus, but his real goal is conquest. This fits in quite well with the Agamemnon of myth, who got into trouble with his wife because he sacrificed his daughter to get a favorable wind for his thousand ships. You may remember Cox as the villain of X-Men 2. His work here makes that performance seem nuanced.

The problem with the movie is that in its desire to fit this story into a stereotypical plot, it makes Cox the villain. True, Agamemnon and Achilles clash in the Iliad, leading to Achilles withdrawing from battle. And in the book, Agamemnon uses questionable tactics; for example, he regularly suggests they sail home in order to rouse his men's blood to battle. Yeah, I don't get it either. But here he is nothing but a strutting popinjay who lets others do the fighting for him. This must be a relief to the dozen or so men he kills in the Iliad (sword in the head, spear in the side, cuts off head, spear in the back). For all his faults, there is no sense that he is a slacker. Homer understands, as the makers of Troy do not, that a prick can still be a hero.

In Troy, Achilles is contemptuous of Agamemnon from the get-go. In the Iliad, though the men clash, it is not until Agamemnon takes his prize Briseis that Achilles gets his knickers in a twist. At which point he goes crying to his mommy, the sea nymph Thetis, (Maggie Smith in Clash of the Titans) to do something about it. Even after Agamemnon realizes he needs Achilles in battle and offers an apology and a huge settlement, including the return of Briseis, Achilles refuses to give in. Why? Achilles gives two reasons: 1) I'm still mad at you! and 2) I said I wouldn't come back until the Trojans were at our ships and they're not here yet. Once again, what Homer gets that Troy does not, is that a hero can still be a prick.

Briseis provides the totally unwarranted love interest in Troy. She does nothing but slow the plot down, as if this lumbering beast needed to go slower. In the end, she is responsible for turning Achilles from a prick to a pussy, with his final line, "You gave me peace in a lifetime of war." This isn't the Iliad, it's Troy Story. These filmmakers should be forced to watch Master and Commander to learn how to create compelling drama without relying on a hackneyed romance. [Certain viewers of Troy are even more upset, since the real romance in the source material is between Achilles and Patroclus, his "cousin" in the movie. Sorry boys, that sort of action doesn't play at the multiplex.]

In the end, the lack of ambiguity and moral conflict dooms the flick. When Hector and Achilles finally rumble at the end, we have no doubt who will win and no interest in who does. At a time when we find ourselves engaged in morally ambiguous warfare, it does a disservice to both Homer and his heroes to reduce them to such pap.

By the by, if you've seen Troy, there's a great recap of the movie online. If you plan to see the movie, you might want to wait to read this until afterwards. Believe me, no matter how well you think you know the story of the Trojan War, this movie will surprise you. If you've already seen the film or have no intention of doing so, click away. The recap is probably less amusing if you haven't seen the movie, but worthwhile under any circumstances.


At Troy, I saw the trailer for Constantine, the upcoming Keanu Reeves comic book movie. It is not about the emperor of the same name, which is disappointing. ("He was born to rule a nation. Now he fights for Christ!") Instead, Keanu is hassled by a lot of the creatures from Hellboy, and finally gets attacked by a bunch of the vampire babies from Van Helsing. Is it because we're so freaked out by the everyday evil around us that we're making movies about folks fighting supernatural terror?

Also saw a trailer for Wicker Park. I should support this movie, since it takes place in Chicago, which is to say, Montreal. Any enthusiasm I might have is dampened by the fact that the movie costars Diane Kruger, i.e. Helen. Yikes! The preview made it look like Vertigo meets Single White Female, with Josh Hartnett in the Jimmy Stewart role. Sorry, I don't see it. Talk about lack of authority. It's hard for me to imagine Hartnett playing obsession, as that state takes place in one's mind, a place he's never been.

Thursday, May 13, 2004

The Agony and The Iliad

I've been reading The Iliad this week, not so much in preparation for today's opening of Troy, as perhaps inspired by it. I should say re-reading - at least at this point. I first dipped into The Iliad some 30 years ago, when the Fitzgerald translation was published. I don't recall how far I read before I ran out of steam. Oh, I had no problem getting through The Odyssey - it's an adventure story, "Tom Terrific in the World of Yesterday." But The Iliad is a bit harder going, even in the Fitzgerald translation, which was lauded at the time for its readability. (And its desire to present Greek names in a form closer to the original, so Hecuba, Meneleus and Achilles become Hekabe, Meneláos and Akhilleus. No, I don't know how it's pronounced either.) A few years back, I picked up the new (at the time) translations of both Homeric epics by Robert Fagles, because I'd heard good things about them and because my old volumes are packed away in a box somewhere and I have no idea where they are. The Fagles translations maintain the verse form (as do the Fitzgerald) while being eminently readable. The language is vigorous, but still quite commonplace, which is appropriate, given the original audience. More on that later. This time, I got about halfway through The Iliad before drifting away, mostly because I had other things I was reading and Homer requires you take your time. So now I am rereading The Iliad, but come to about Book 12, I'll be reading it for the first time.

[A side note. When you search for Iliad on Amazon, you receive more than 7000 hits. Most of those are books, which include not only The Iliad and The Odyssey but Cliffs Notes and other reference sources to both. Thanks to the "Search Inside the Book" feature, you also receive hits for every volume that even mentions The Iliad, from Why We Love: The Nature and Chemistry of Romantic Love to The Business Style Handbook: An A-to-Z Guide for Writing on the Job with Tips from Communications Experts at the Fortune 500. Thanks, Jeff. If you're interested, you can also pick up Hans Peter's CD, Music for The Iliad, which you can listen to at The Old Spaghetti Factory in Oakland ("Legend has it that Homer lived on Spaghetti with Browned Butter & Mizithra Cheese while composing The Iliad) while wearing your Iliad Sunglasses from Serengeti (Henna with Tortoise Frames or Gunmetal with Shiny Black Frames, only 200 bucks). There's no Old Spaghetti Factory in Chicago, but there is one in Henderson, Nevada.]

[A second side note. In rereading this article, I see that I assume that my gentle readers are familiar with The Iliad, and proceed thusly. (As Harry Ruby would say.) For those of you who are not, Ian Johnston's Iliad website provides a great overview of the Trojan War, which is the theme of the work. For our purposes, all you need to know is that the Trojan War started when Paris, a prince of Troy, ran off with Helen, the wife of Menelaus, the king of Argos, one of the city-states of Greece. Agamemnon, Menelaus' brother, is the leader of the Greek forces. Odysseus, who you may know as Ulysses, is another Greek warlord, and the hero of The Odyssey, which is why it's called that. Not The Ulyssey. Hector, Paris' big brother, is the greatest warrior in Troy; Achilles is the greatest warrior in Greece. Eventually they square off.]

The first thing that strikes you about The Iliad (assuming you are me) is how bloody it is. Bloody without being bloodthirsty, which is to say while it is very matter of fact about its horrific scenes of carnage, it does not revel in them. Classic literature has a (somewhat undeserved) reputation for being somewhat reserved. In Greek theater, all death and slaughter take place offstage. They are reported onstage, sometimes in fairly graphic detail, but there is a clear sense of what is appropriate for the stage. Thus, when Oedipus puts his eyes out, or when Orestes kills his mother, the audience only hears about it after the fact. Contrast this with King Lear, for instance, in which Gloucester's "vile jelly" is dug out in full view of the audience.

And indeed, before we get to any scenes of real violence, we are lulled by the catalog of Book 2, in which all the Greek leaders are listed, along with their places or origin and, in many cases, their family background. For example, we learn that Odysseus

... led his Cephallenian companies,
gallant-hearted fighters, the island men of Ithaca,
of Mount Neriton's leafy ridges shimmering in the wind,
and men who lived in Crocylia and rugged Aegilips,
men who held Zacynthus and men who dwelled near Samos
and mainland men who grazed their flocks across the channel.
The mastermind like Zeus, Odysseus led these fighters on,
In his command sailed twelve ships, prows flashing crimson.

And so it goes for nearly 300 lines. Even here, though, you get a sense of the language that Fagles employs. There's nothing about the diction or syntax to get in the way of the modern reader. And while not specifically poetic, the rhythm is sufficient to draw the reader on. His rhythm is much more leisurely than mine, which is why you just skimmed over the excerpt. Admit it!

Let's skip forward 2000 years. (Actually closer to 2400, but who's counting?) You probably know the line, "Was this the face that launched a thousand ships?" It is generally taught as a perfect example of iambic pentameter: five feet of two syllables each, with the stress on the second syllable. (da DUM da DUM da DUM da DUM da DUM) The line refers, of course, to Helen of Troy and was written by ... who? Not William Shakespeare, but his contemporary, Christopher Marlowe (Rupert Everett in the movie), in his play Doctor Faustus. Now, look back at the selection quoted above. As you will note, it ends with the number of ships Odysseus led. As does each similar stanza. I always assumed that the 1000 ships line was poetic license at best, some Elizabethan boys' school tradition at worst. Being the geek that I am, I went back and added up all the ships Homer says went with Menelaus to Troy. 1186. Yeah, I know. Mostly in group of 40, though as high as 100. Making Odysseus' 12 seem like a pittance, but Ithaca is an island, after all.

Soon enough, descriptions of heroes give way to descriptions of battle, and this is where the bloodletting begins. As I said, I found much of it disturbing. I doubt that Troy, violent as it may be, will come close to the gore in Iliad. To begin with, nearly 250 deaths are described in some detail. Ian Johnston, of Malaspina University-College in Nanaimo, British Columbia, provides a listing on his Iliad website. It is quite the inventory. Spear in the chest, spear in the gut, spear in the head. Sword in the neck, arm cut off, rock in the skull. Lovely. Homer is more descriptive, but he accomplishes an extraordinary amount without using many words. This, for example, is how Diomedes slays Pandarus with his spear. I've taken it out of verse form to make it seem less foreign.

"He hurled the shaft and it split the archer's nose between the eyes - it cracked his glistening teeth, the tough bronze cut off his tongue at the roots, smashed his jaw and the point came ripping out beneath his chin."

I doubt we'll see that on the big screen. Here's Diomedes wounding Aeneas:

"Diomedes hefted a boulder in his hands ... flung it and struck Aeneas' thigh where the hipbone turns inside the pelvis, the joint they call the cup - it smashed the socket, snapped both tendons too, and the jagged rock tore back the skin in shreds."

And one more Diomedes, just for good luck.

"One he stabbed with a bronze lance above the nipple, the other his heavy sword hacked at the collarbone, cleaving the whole shoulder clear of neck and back."

You'd think Diomedes was the only Greek fighting. Well, in Book 5 he practically is. Every now and then, one of the warriors goes on a rampage, and all hell breaks loose. Hector gets pretty busy in Book 5, at one point killing 6 Greeks in a row, but it's Diomedes' turn, and he wipes out a dozen Trojans, at one point spearing Aphrodite in the wrist and later gutting Ares (Mars), the god of war himself. Neither wound is fatal, of course, but Ares lets out a roar of anger and pain, "thundering loud as nine, ten thousand combat soldiers," which stops the show for a while. This is pretty impressive. But Achilles, when he finally gets his act together, wipes out 25 Trojans over the course of two books. The poem is known as The Wrath of Achilles, after all.

But everybody kills somebody sometime. And it's all just nasty.

"Meriones caught him quickly, running him down hard, and speared him low in the right buttock - the point pounding under the pelvis, jabbed and pierced the bladder - he dropped to his knees, screaming, death swirling round him."

"Thoas speared him as he swerved and sprang away, the lancehead piercing his chest above the nipple plunged deep in his lung, and Thoas, running up, wrenched the heavy spear from the man's chest, drew his blade, ripped him across the belly."

Sometimes it's brief:

"the spearhead punched his back between the shoulders, gouging his flesh and jutting out through his ribs"

but generally it's horrible:

"Antilochus thrust first, speared the horsehair helmet right at the ridge, and the bronze spearpoint lodged in the man's forehead, smashing through his skull and the dark came swirling down across his eyes."

"Odysseus speared him straight through one temple, and out the other punched the sharp bronze point and the dark came swirling down across his eyes."

You may have noted some repetition in the last two examples (three if you count Meriones), and this is another thing that strikes you about the poem, especially in a good translation. The Iliad and The Odyssey were not written down, as I assume you know, until centuries after their creation. They are both part of an oral tradition. This is evident in the ways in which the poem acknowledges its audience. Many of the characters have epithets connected with them. Menelaus, for example, is red-haired Menelaus or Menelaus of the war cry or Atreus' fighting son. Odysseus is the great tactician, Achilles is the runner, the Greeks are long-haired, the Argives are breakers of horses. And many more. One function of these epithets was to support the metrical base of the line: the bard could choose the appropriate description based on the needs of the rhythm. But they also served as a connection for the audience. Think "Hey Now." Or "D'oh!"

Throughout the poem, certain speeches and descriptions are repeated in the exact same words. Early on, for example, Agamemnon has a dream. When he repeats his dream, it is in the same words that were used to describe it. These set passages were probably repeated with the bard by the audience, like an 8th century BC Rocky Horror. The audience may well have joined in with, "And the dark came swirling down between his eyes," which is why there are so many of them. Plus, it makes a 500 page poem easier to fake.

Homer's audience is apparent, too, from the similes and metaphors he employs. Unlike a modern audience for the poem, which comprises scholars and students and people of some education, the contemporary audience was composed of common people: herders and farmers and fishermen. So when Homer uses a metaphor, it comes from their experiences. Often, they come from the natural world. This is how he describe the Greek army marching on Troy:

When the south wind showers mist on the mountaintops,
no friend to shepherds, better than night to thieves -
you can see no farther than you can fling a stone -
so dust came clouding, swirling up from the feet of armies
marching at top speed, trampling through the plain.

When Menelaus sees Paris, he is "thrilled
like a lion lighting on some handsome carcass,
lucky to find an antlered stag or a wild goat
just as hunger strikes - he rips it, bolts it down,
even with running dogs and lusty hunters rushing him."

This is a mountain cat, not some Siegfried and Roy creature. The shepherds would be familiar with driving off such animals. Paris, who has been strutting in front of the troops, is less happy to see Menelaus.

Backing into his friendly ranks, he cringed from death
as one who trips on a snake in a hilltop hollow
recoils, suddenly, trembling grips his knees
and pallor takes his cheeks and back he shrinks.

This description would quite possibly be followed by laughter. Audience members may have stumbled upon serpents - or other deadly things - unawares, and they know the experience Homer describes.

Priam, the king of Troy, and the city elders, "were eloquent speakers still, clear as cicadas settled on treetops, lifting their voices through the forest, rising softly, falling, fading away." Priam describes Odysseus as looking "like a thick-fleeced bellweather ram making his way through a big mass of sheep-flocks, shining silver-gray." And Paris says of Hector,

The heart inside you is always hard,
like an ax that goes through wood when a shipwright
cuts out ship timbers with every ounce of skill
and the blade's weight drives the man's stroke.

In describing amassing battalions, Homer says:

Think how a goatherd off on a mountain lookout
spots a storm cloud moving down the sea
bearing down beneath the rush of the west wind
and miles away he sees it building black as pitch,
blacker, whipping the whitecaps, full hurricane fury -
the herdsman shudders to see it, drives his flocks to a cave.

He puts his audience not in the place of the glorious storm, but of the goatherd who has to deal with the consequences. Later, he compares the clashing armies to two rivers raging into a valley during the spring thaw, and includes the line, "and miles away in the hills a shepherd hears the thunder." He recognizes that the events he describes are awesome, in the true meaning of the word: they inspire awe. He is not creating his work for kings (or scholars), but for hard working men and women who live a difficult life. Many may know parts - possibly large parts - of the poem by heart; many have their favorite characters. They are like Civil War buffs.

The poem has its gentle side as well. When one young soldier falls, he is "like a lithe black poplar shot up tall and strong in the spreading marshy flats, the trunk trimmed but its head a shock of branches." It's easy to imagine a tall, scrawny kid with a bushy head of hair. Homer goes on, "A chariot-maker fells it with a shining iron ax as timber to bend for handsome chariot wheels and there it lies, seasoning by the river." There is perhaps some point to this death, but all we are left with is a boy who did not survive to "season" in life. At another point, Athena protects Menelaus from an arrow, "flicking it off your skin as quick as a mother flicks a fly from her baby sleeping softly." Odd to hear the lord of the war cry compared to an infant, but perhaps that's what we are to the gods.

For all its slaughter, Homer puts a very human face on war. This is something which is particularly resonant. The Greeks are the purported heroes of the piece, but Homer does not discount the valor of the Trojans. In battle scenes, it is sometimes difficult to tell who is fighting on which side. And rarely is one soldier more valiant than another. Though Homer has little use for Paris, Hector is easily as noble as any of the Greeks, as is Priam. In Book 2, after discussing the catalog of Greek leaders, he does the same for the Trojans.

He employs one technique which is particularly effective, and particularly disturbing. In battle sequences, he will describe an attack, and then provide the background of the characters, and then describe their death. For example, when Diomedes goes on his rampage, he kills a set of brothers, "men grown tall as their father shrank away with wasting age ... He ripped the dear life out of both and left their father tears and wrenching grief. Now he'd never welcome his two sons home from war, alive in the flesh, and distant kin would carve apart their birthright." Let me remind you that Diomedes is a Greek warrior, so his victims are, supposedly, the enemy. Imagine, if you will, seeing not only the photos out of Abu Ghraib, but snapshots of each of the prisoners - and the prison guards - taken with their families five years ago. This is what Homer does. It is the nature of war to be dehumanizing, and the events described in The Iliad are in the distant past even in Homer's time, which allows him some leeway. But still, it is an act of great valor.

The Iliad covers only a brief period of the Trojan War: a few weeks in the 9th year. If you're planing to see Troy, possible spoilers ahead. The poem ends with the death of Hector. It does not include the Trojan Horse, it doesn't include the fall of Troy. It ends before the death of Achilles. Contemporary audiences would know these stories; modern audiences may or may not. No one comes out of this well. There are scenes in the poem of Hector with his wife and infant child. Knowing that the son gets thrown from the city walls adds poignancy to these scenes. Most folks know that Odysseus has bad times ahead in the sequel. They may not know that it also takes Menelaus some time to get home - about seven years. Agamemnon gets the worst of it: he gets home in a timely fashion, but is killed by his wife and her lover, his cousin. Some families. They also kill Cassandra, Priam's daughter, who's just in the wrong place at the wrong time. It all works out okay, though, because Agamemnon's son, prompted by his sister, kills his mother and his second cousin and then gets off on an insanity plea. Really.

Finally, Aeneas, the only surviving son of Priam, eventually ends up in Italy, where he founds Rome. Sort of. At least according to Virgil in The Aeneid. Having conquered Greece, the Romans could therefore say it was all some kind of karmic retribution. But that's a story for another day.

Friday, May 07, 2004

Gangsters and Gunslingers

If you need to reach me, don't call on Sunday night. Let me explain, as the bouzoukis pluck out the strains of Never On Sunday in the background.

I don't watch a lot of TV. At least, not standard broadcast television. Oh, I was raised with TV like everyone, and watched my share until I got to college. Then, the combination of not having a TV and studying theater and rehearsing in the evenings weaned me from the habit. The television set I own is more than 15 years old and has developed several interesting ticks. For one, it retunes itself occasionally. It is set to channel 4, in order to receive from the cable box and VCR, and every now and then it will switch to channel 4. Yes, from channel 4 to channel 4. But, much as if it is switching channels, when it retunes there is a split second of dead sound. (The picture remains unaffected.) Since these retunes tend to run in series, there are times when the dialogue begins to stutter. I can sometimes combat this by switching to another channel and then coming back to 4, but that doesn't always help. It's to the point that I don't even notice it unless it's happening a lot, but it drives others crazy. Aside from a few similar glitches, though, the set works fine, and I'm unlikely to replace it until it dies completely or some unknowing burglar breaks in and steals it. From my fingers to God's ears! What am I paying renter's insurance for?

The astute among you may be asking, "If you don't watch much TV, why do you have cable?" It's not TV, it's HBO.

Sunday night is TV night. Oh, there have been flirtations with other nights, such as the West Wing/Law and Order combo on Wednesday, but they don't last. Sure, I'm a sucker for Big Brother, but I never watch what follows it - couldn't even tell you what did. I've seen maybe 2 complete episode of Friends, and never saw Seinfeld, Frasier or Third Rock From the Sun in their original time slots. (I was introduced to the latter three as reruns on Fox.)

My Sunday night TV tradition - if you discount childhood viewings of such fare as The Wonderful World of Color (I was too young to watch this program when it was Walt Disney Presents and it lost something when it became The Wonderful World of Disney) and the rest of the NBC lineup - goes back to the early 90s and The Simpsons. FOX, being FOX, moved The Simpsons all around the schedule - putting it up against Cosby at one point, where it still didn't die. By the late 90s, both The Simpsons and The Larry Sanders Show had settled on Sunday nights for good, and so had I. When Larry Sanders went off the air, I hoped HBO would come up with something half as good to fill the gap in my Sunday night schedule. The network responded with The Sopranos.

The Sopranos is back this season, with a vengeance. In this case, the phrase is not cliché. All of the characters have axes to grind, and heads to bury them in once they're good and sharp. Over the past few episodes, the show has gained momentum, and viewers are now girding their loins for the coming bloodbath. If you're a fan, you've been watching; if not, it's almost too late. Last week's episode was the ninth of the season, and since a season generally consists of 13 episodes, it looks like we're down to the final four.

For the past two seasons, The Sopranos has been something of a dreary affair. Last season in particular - the one in which Tony and Carmela's marriage fell apart - was in dire need of Zoloft. Plot threads involved Christopher's heroin addiction, Carmela's doomed flirtation with soldier Furio and Tony's loss of the only thing he loved, his racehorse. The cast and writing were up to their usual standards, but there wasn't a stand out episode, such as the previous season's "Pine Barrens," in which Christopher and Paulie get lost in the woods while trying to whack a Russian mobster, or Janice's breakup with Richie Aprile in season two, or almost every episode from the first season.

This year is back to form. Though the story lines are as dark as ever - Tony and Carmela are headed for divorce, Carmela has an abortive attempt to have an affair, Tony is dealing with guilt over his relationship with his cousin - the energy is high. Episodes are packed with incident - last Sunday's outing involved three major plot threads, and after all three had been resolved, there was a final revelation that put both this season and the entire series into a new light. Steve Buscemi, Robert Loggia and David Strathairn have been added as guest or supporting players. (Also on view are Max Casella, who once played Doogie Howser's best friend, and Frankie Valli, tiny yet threatening.) Loggia played a character named Feech LaManna, one of the Class of '84 - a group of gangsters jailed 20 years ago who have recently been paroled. He immediately created strife in the Family, but rather than letting this story line play out throughout the season - as similar plots have in previous seasons - it was tied up by the fourth episode. The problem was resolved - as was another conflict, between Tony and Christopher - with more elegance than the gunplay we usually expect.

Feech, by the by, was a character introduced, but not seen, as early as season three. He's the "old mustache" who used to run the Executive Poker Game that Tony and Jackie Aprile, Sr. knocked over when they were kids, as related by Ralphie to Jackie Jr. This is one of the joys of The Sopranos. The show does a better job of adding and developing minor characters than any show on television, with the exception of The Simpsons. (The Simpsons regularly spins entire episodes around such characters as Principal Skinner and Mrs. Krabappel, or Krusty or Moe, using the family as secondary players.) Tony's sister Janice, now a stalwart of the series, entered as a one season story line. Patsy Parisi - who handled Tony's breakup with Gloria (Annabella Sciorra) in season three - was originally introduced as a threat to Tony, the twin brother to whacked Philly Parisi. With Tony and Carmela's separation, Carmela has developed a circle of friends of mob wives and widows. This serves not only to keep the show fresh, but to deepen the texture of its world.

Another element of The Sopranos which makes it stand out - and which it shares with other HBO dramas (and comedies) - is that it is greater than the sum of its parts. It has room for metaphor. Commercial TV is so desperate to squeeze a few minutes of plot into 40 minutes of air time that it rarely makes time for much more. An exception was The West Wing, at least in the early days, when it moved at such a frenetic clip that it was the audience's responsibility to keep up. But that pace allowed it to develop at least two story lines per episode, and since Aaron Sorkin trusted his audience to follow him, he didn't look back to constantly prod them, unlike most commercial fare, which has a constant "didja geddit?" grin plastered to its goofy face. HBO shows have the luxury of a full hour and several showings a week, which give them the confidence to try new things with the belief that the audience will play along.

Here's a rather simple example from this year's season. In the first episode, Tony has moved out of the house and is living in his dead mother's place. (The mileage they've gotten out of that house since Livia died is astonishing, especially since it was on the market at one time. Speaking of houses on the market, the Minneapolis home which served as the exterior location for Mary Richards' apartment is for sale. A mere $1.7 million will get you five bedrooms, six baths and a ton of tourists.) Carmela and AJ are there alone when a bear shows up on the property. The bear actually threatens AJ, who is taking out the trash, until Carmela frightens it off. Later, a Fish and Game Warden appears to explain to the audience why it is not beyond belief for a bear to appear in the backyard of a New Jersey home. But the bear has more significance than just a plot development. Tony is, of course, a bear of a man in his own right. In his absence, another bear threatens the family. The bear is drawn by the bird feed Tony purchased in a previous season to feed the ducks that lived in his pool. The ducks were the cause of his early panic attacks, symbolizing, according to his doctor, his fear of losing his family. Tony is losing his family, and the bear is there to destroy the security he invested in to keep his symbolic family present. In his absence, Carmela is forced to defend the home, and she acts as the mother bear, protecting her young against the intruder and later enlisting the aid of another alpha male, the Warden. Tony has several members of his crew keep watch at the house in case the bear returns. He has an AK-47 hidden at the house, and he entrusts his big gun to younger men. He has abdicated his role as the protector of his family, and in this time of danger, has thrust his wife into the arms of strangers. The bear only appears at night, so Tony is metaphorically cuckolding himself, in the tradition of Commedia dell'Arte. By the end of the episode, Tony - having been rebuffed in his affections by his analyst - has reclaimed his gun and is himself serving as the guardian against the intruding male, though doing so, significantly, outside the house.

Is this sort of analysis unwarranted? Yes and no. I am perhaps stretching a point to make a point. The metaphors in this episode are not what students like to call "hidden meanings," there to find and circle. But they are meaning. They give the story greater texture. Perhaps it takes a text analysis wonk like me to determine this degree of significance, but even a casual viewer will find in The Sopranos greater levels of shading than in the average episode of ER.

Granted, even HBO backs a stinker from time to time. The wretched Carnivalé, which it squeezed into its Sunday night lineup last year and is threatening to impose upon us against, was nothing but metaphor. The show took 12 episodes to deliver what was essentially exposition disguised as plot. And the season finale was a cliff hanger - pretty ballsy for the first season of a show that wouldn't necessarily return. Even after four seasons, The Sopranos still wraps up all its story lines by the end of the year.

HBO's strength lies in revitalizing genre shows. The Sopranos provided the first fresh view of the mob since Goodfellas. Curb Your Enthusiasm has redefined the sitcom, The Wire found fresh life in the police procedural, Six Feet Under has shattered the family drama (think The Waltons on acid). Now comes Deadwood, which finds life in the western I would not have expected.

I am Deadwood's whore. Full disclosure: I like westerns. Good westerns. True Grit. Treasure of the Sierra Madre. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. But then, I like most genres. (With the exception of war movies. The only war movies I seem to like are those with a hook, like The Dirty Dozen. Could not abide Shaving Ryan's Privates. Which may be why I never made it through Band of Brothers.) And I approached Deadwood with some hope. The trailers made it look like fun. It's the creation of David Milch, who brought us NYPD Blue and was a writer on Hill Street Blues and Murder One. It follows The Sopranos, so it wasn't an effort to catch. One look, and I was hooked.

Deadwood follows in the tracks laid down by Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven. The West is filthy, people are filthy, morals are loose at best. It takes place in the town of Deadwood, before there even was a South Dakota, and is based on - but is not slavish to - actual people, places and events. Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane are characters, and if all you know of Jane is the Doris Day portrayal, you're in for a surprise. Our hero is Seth Bullock, and he and his partner Sol Star were real people, as were Al Swearengen, Charlie Utter (another member of Hickok's crew) and even Reverend Smith. Much of the action takes place between competing houses of ill repute, The Gem and the Bella Union, both of which were "theaters" in historic Deadwood.

The show stars Timothy Olyphant, who you may recall as the drug dealer from Go, or less memorably, from A Man Apart, Dreamcatcher or Rock Star. He is currently on view in The Girl Next Door, playing a role based on Joe Pantoliano's Guido the Killer Pimp from Risky Business. Or so I read. I haven't seen The Girl Next Door, nor do I intend to, but I cannot fault its audience for being drawn in. I certainly saw my quota of teensploitation flicks back in the 80s, starting with Risky Business, but descending as low as My Tutor, starring Matt (Mr. Olivia Newton-John) Lattanzi and the ineffable (though in this movie, infinitely effable) Caren Kaye as the titular tutor.

But I digress.

The rest of the cast is a mix of faces both familiar and un. The appropriately named Al Swearengen - he is, indeed, an engine of cursing - is played by Ian McShane, who you may remember as the mob boss in Sexy Beast, but probably not. (On the other hand, if you haven't seen Sexy Beast, do yourself a favor and rent it.) I am predicting Golden Globe and Emmy nominations, and likely wins, next year. (Clip and save!) As the villain of the town, McShane chews the scenery, spits it in your face and makes you like it. William Sanderson, Larry of Newhart and the toy maker in Blade Runner, plays Swearengen's toady. Brad Dourif is the town doctor, Jeffrey Jones the newspaper editor, and Ricky Jay a partner at the Bella Union. Keith Carradine and Powers Boothe bring great authority to supporting roles. They have played so many roles, and so many in this genre (Carradine's first part was in McCabe and Mrs. Miller, when he was 21) that they wear the costumes and language as if they were born to them.

Ah, the language. Much has been made of the salty nature of the intercourse between the characters. There seems to be a widespread belief that profanity is an invention of the 20th century, and that such Yosemite Samisms as "you lily livered varmint" might be more appropriate to the period. There are no "consarnits" in the show, but there are plenty of "c**ks**kers." Along with the usual f***s, c*nts and the occasional, but rare, m*****f*****. Those who are willing to believe that men were coarse during this period still tend to assume that the nature of discourse was somewhat milder.

While it is true that f*** did not appear in any dictionary of the English language from 1795 to 1965, and didn't make its debut in the OED until 1972, sources date its use to as early as 1278. The American Heritage dictionary notes the usage of a variant - the faux Latin "fuccant" - in a poem published prior to 1500. The OED cites "fukkit" from the 1503 poem, "Brash of Wowing." The earliest citation of the current spelling is from 1535. Shakespeare punned around it both in Henry V, when Pistol threatens to "firk" a French soldier, and in Merry Wives of Windsor, when a character refers to the "focative case," instead of "vocative." Similarly, c**t was in use in the 13th century, and makes veiled appearances in Hamlet and Twelfth Night. I haven't had much luck researching c-sucker, most likely because its main function is as an epithet, but I imagine it was in wide use by 1876, the year of the show. And you can just imagine the sponsored links that come up when you do this research.

In any case, profanity is wielded like a club by the characters in Deadwood. Swearengen is the champ, but Calamity Jane gives him a run for his money. One online poster noted that in the April 25 episode, c-sucker was used only 5 times, an all time low. Jane must have been absent that week. Whereas Swearengen uses the word mainly to refer to people he doesn't like Jane sees it as synonym for "man," or in extreme cases, "you." If the c-ses were cut, and only the f-s remained, this show probably wouldn't have half the rep it does for foul language. We are so used to f, that it takes a cocksucker to rouse us from our lethargy.

Of course, clubs are also wielded like clubs. Well, not clubs so much, but guns, knives, ropes, shovels - pretty much anything you can think of to inflict pain or death. HBO keeps track in the "Dead Count" section of the site. Although Episode 5 seemed to pass without incident, you can generally count on a shooting or knifing in every show. The killings range from matter of fact to shocking, and while half of the corpses end up buried, the rest are fed to Mr. Wu's pigs. As in The Sopranos, violence is a way of life, and anyone who can't deal with it won't be alive for long. In any case, the violence, while not for the squeamish, is never gratuitous.

I am completely wrapped up in Deadwood. Whether it's historically accurate or not, it feels like it is, which is more important. As with any TV show, the litmus test is whether or not you want to spend time with these people. I do - at least from the safety of my 21st century sofa. The season is half over - I've been meaning to tell you about this for weeks - but it's not too late to catch up. HBO has already had two nights of multi-episode reruns, and I wouldn't put it past them to have another. Small pox has hit the camp, and as far as I can tell, all lives are up for grabs but Bullock's and Swearengen's, so your favorite character may be dead soon.