Borrowed Battles: ‘300: Rise of Empire’ (Noam Murro, 2014) and HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’.

Spoiler Alert: I discuss events from season 2 and the season 5 finale of Game of Thrones.

In this post, I examine the ways in which 300: Rise of Empire (Noam Murro, 2014) — a film about the Greco-Persian War of 480 BCE borrows from two moments in the HBO GoT storyline: the Battle of Black Water in season 2 and the Battle of Winterfell in the season 5 finale. The makers of 300: Rise look to HBO series for its opening flashback to the Battle of Marathon (490 BCE) and for the third Persian assault in its version of the Battle of Artemisium.

In the season 5 finale, the Bolton forces, led by the repugnant Ramsay Bolton, carry out a preemptive assault on Stannis Baratheon’s newly arrived forces, ending his hopes of securing the Iron Throne. The scene recalls the Athenian assault on the newly landed Persians at Marathon, as depicted in 300: Rise with the Boltons paralleling the Athenians and Baratheon’s army the Persians.

Stannis arrives at Winterfell at dawn, following a night march. He halts his forces and directs them to establish a camp and prepare for an extended siege. The Boltons, who occupy Winterfell, take him by surprise when they launch an immediate attack on his forces, which are weary and in disarray [View the scene here].

300: Rise begins with the Spartan Queen Gorgo (portrayed by Lena Headey, GoT’s Cersei Lannister), widow of Leonidas, narrating in voice over the background to the Persian King Xerxes’ invasion of Greece. She describes the defeat of Xerxes’ father Darius and his numerically superior forces at Marathon by Athenian hoplites under the command of Themistokles: “So, at dawn the hopeless Athenians do the unthinkable. They attack. They attack the weary Persians, as they disembark their ships on shaky legs after a month at sea. They attack before they can set up their war camp and supply their soldiers.” [View the scene here. The relevant voice over information occurs in the first 50 seconds or so. Violence starts at 0:56]. Stannis is in the very act of setting up his war camp, when the Bolton forces are sighted.

There are superficial differences between the situations. Stannis’ force does not outnumber the Boltons. Much of his army had already deserted. He arrives by land, not by sea, etc., but the basic scenario is the same: a preemptive strike surprises and eliminates a newly arrived invader. Coincidentally, both film and episode depart from their respective master texts insofar as Darius’ death is ahistorical and Stannis’ is a divergence from, or at least an imposition upon, George R. R. Martin’s book.

300: Rise shows further borrowing from GoT’s Stannis narrative in its depiction of the last of three engagements at Artemisium between the Greek fleet commanded by Themistokles and Artemisia’s Persian fleet. After Themistokles leads his naval forces to two victories over subordinate commanders, Artemisia takes personal command of the third assault. This consists of a barge that pipes pitch into the sea. Atop the barge, a massive, more or less humanoid creature hammer throws fiery projectiles into the waters around the Greek ships, setting them alight. Finally, Artemisia sends in a squad of her personal guard as suicide bombers. They swim from the Persian ships to the Greek ships with explosives strapped to their backs. When one manages to board Themistokles’ ship, Artemisia shoots a fire arrow into his explosive pack, causing it to explode.

300rise

 

The rest of the Greek fleet is disposed of in similar fashion. The following day Themistokles rallies the survivors to continue the fight.

This sequence is quite similar to the Battle of the Black Water in Season 2. There Tyrion, architect of the Lannister defense of King’s Landing, sends a single ship drifting through the harbor waters into the first wave of Stannis’ attack fleet. This ship is packed with containers of wildfire (a napalm-like explosive substance), an abundance of which it is also leaking into the bay. His bodyguard Bron then fires a flaming arrow into the waters, causing a massive explosion that destroys half of Stannis’ fleet (view the scene here).

blackwater

Stannis nevertheless leads the other half personally in a second wave attack. Themistokles’ renewed attack on the Persians, following his defeat at Artemisium, is not immediate, as is Stannis’ against King’s Landing. Also, Themistokles is finally successful, where Stannis is not. Yet, here too there is an overriding similarity. When Stannis is close to victory, having breached the wall, his attack is foiled at the last moment by a relief force from the House Tyrell (view here at 00.48). In 300: Rise, Themistokles succeeds in killing Artemisia, but his tiny flotilla remains vulnerable and sure to be overwhelmed. The arrival of Spartan forces at the last moment reverses this all but certain outcome, destroying the Persians’ chances of at least eliminating the Greek force that took the life of their commander (view here).

The choreography of the transition is similar, as well. In GoT, Cersei waits with her son in the throne room preparing to give him poison, while telling him a story to comfort him. 300: Rise even seems to contain a nod to its source, insofar as the same actress narrates in 300: Rise , this time as Gorgo the Spartan queen. Now, rather than immobilized with a palace, she leads the Spartan relief forces. In GoT, as the wounded Tyrion, losing consciousness, gazes off into the distance, the Tyrell army sweeps in to drive off Stannis’ forces. In 300: Rise, as the wounded Artemisia looks off into the distance, moments before her death, she sees the Spartan ships heading toward her fleet, ready to crush it.

 

 

 

 

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Prince and Orpheus: ‘Purple Rain’ (1984) as a Possible Model for Jacques Demy’s ‘Parking’ (1985)

In this post, I look at the possibility that the depiction of Prince in his role as ‘The Kid’ in Albert Magnoli’s Purple Rain (1984) offered a model for the recreation the mythical musician Orpheus in French director Jacques Demy’s film Parking (1985). 

The key visual connection between the two films is a correspondence between the two artists’ arrivals at their performance venues early in both films. Demy’s introduction of Orpheus as a pop star begins in stark contrast to Purple Rain‘s opening sequence, but then shifts to a striking note of similarity with Purple Rain‘s introduction of The Kid. Both he and Orpheus arrive at their performance venue on motorcycle with a guitar slung across his back, each clad in, and riding a motorcycle of, their signature color — purple for The Kid, white for Orpheus. This connection, however, is embedded in a broader series of relationships that the opening minutes of each film introduce.

The promotional poster. A still (or video) of The Kid's arrival at the club was not available.

The promotional poster. A still (or video) of The Kid’s arrival at the club was not available.

Demy imagines Orpheus as a white, French celebrity pop singer, very much established in his career, though dissatisfied with his own relationship to his art. [1] Over the course of the film, we learn that he is bisexual, carrying on a secret (from Eurydice anyway) affair with Calaïs, a member of his entourage. The audience first encounters Orpheus as a lover joyfully fawning over – and simultaneously serenading – a semi-nude Eurydice (Keiko Ito). [2] Orpheus leaves on his motorcycle at minute 2:10, following the musical carpet romp with Eurydice.

PARKING, Keiko Ito (bottom), 1985. ©A.M. Films

Purple Rain introduces us to The Kid simultaneously with his rival Morris (Morris Day) and future lover Apollonia (Apollonia Kotero). His status as the main character is established in the film’s first scene, which shows him performing onstage, followed by cuts back to this performance. This point of reference stands outside the timeline of the rest of the opening sequence, which also treats The Kid’s pre-show preparations, while periodically cutting to him as he readies himself. Morris and The Kid appear through intercut scenes as they dress and style themselves in their relatively humble domestic circumstances. The Kid lives at his parents’ home (we see part of his room during this sequence). Morris is vacuuming his cramped apartment in his underwear and selecting his suit. The Kid gazes sensually into his mirror, smiles, licks his lips. Morris emerges, clad in a long white overcoat, to be picked up by his friend Jerome (Jerome Benton) for a grand arrival at the First Avenue Club. The Kid arrives at the club on his motorcycle. Apollonia enters the sequence at this point. 

Parking blends these details. After making love with Eurydice, Orpheus emerges from his house, as does Morris. He is dressed and helmeted  in white, which is the color of Morris’ overcoat as he gets into the car. Orpheus slings his guitar across his back (pointed down) and mounts his motorcycle. The Kid arrives at the club on his motorcycle with his guitar slung across his back (pointed up).

Although Parking starts with the preexisting relationship of Orpheus and Eurydice, Orpheus’ ride to the concert hall is considerably more extended than the quick cut to The Kid’s arrival. It provides the backdrop for the opening credits. The length of the ride alters our perspective on Eurydice’s role in his life. As Orpheus nears the performance arena, he grows literally and figuratively more distant from her and crosses (we later learn) into the territory he shares with his lover Calaïs, who works backstage at his concerts. In Purple Rain, by contrast, the performance space brings all three main characters into the same orbit.

As final note, I mention one piece of circumstantial evidence which suggests to me that Purple Rain could have been on Demy’s horizon in its production or preproduction stages. The two films share an indirect connection. Michel Colombier, composer for Demy’s 1982 Une Chambre en Ville (A Room in Town), is credited alongside Prince and John Nelson with the music for Purple Rain.

Colombier did not do the music for Parking. That job was filled by Michel Legrande; however, the fact that this earlier collaborator of Demy worked on a current, broadly similar type of film  — i.e. a musical performer’s navigation of  art, identity, and romance — suggests that Demy could have learned of it in advance, that it would have been of interest to him upon its release, and that he might have incorporated the above elements. [3]

In the meantime, I am planning a future post in which I look at parallels between The Kid in Purple Rain and Orpheus in cinema (especially Parking and Jean Cocteau’s Orpheus (1950)).

End Notes:

[1] In addition to wealth and celebrity status, race marks a major difference between the two films. Two of Purple Rain‘s three major characters are black (biracial in The Kid’s case) and the third, Apollonia, is Latina, though her background is not specified in the film.

[2] I’m uncertain how common the white male/asian female couple was in French film at the time, but the racial casting of a white (male) and Asian (female) couple seems to recall that of the highly influential 1981 French music-themed film Diva (Jean-Jacques Beineix) in which Franco-Vietnamese actor Thuy An Luu portrays Alba, the lover and all purpose operative of the idiosyncratic white philosopher/opera fan Gorodish (Richard Bohringer). Although Eurydice’s name obscures the character’s ethnicity, when she dies, there is Japanese writing seen on the mirror near her body. Since she is an artist in a relationship with an immensely popular singer, who is ultimately shot by deranged fans, it seems likely that the casting is meant to evoke John Lennon and Yoko Ono. Lennon’s death was four years earlier.

[3] Two possibilities for future study: (a) Find out, if possible, more information about the production schedules of both films to get a sense of the available time Demy would have had, following the release of Purple Rain. A second, possibly easier, task would be to develop a better sense of how common the shared elements in these two introductory sequences were in films generally at this time.

 

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Sappho’s Poetry in Terrence Malick’s ‘New World’ (2005)

[The following makes reference to dialogue found only in the 2008 extended edition of the film.]

The first half of Terrence Malick’s The New World offers an account of the relationship between the British adventurer John Smith and a young Algonquian woman. After Smith spends time as a prisoner and then guest of the Algonquian people at the city of Werewocomoco, he and the daughter of the monarch Powhatan fall in love. Although anyone familiar with this story knows that she is Pocahontas, that name is never spoken in the film. No given name for her is mentioned until she is baptized in the Jamestown colony as Rebecca.

During their time together, the secret couple’s affection has not gone entirely unnoticed, but neither has it been made a public issue. As Smith’s departure from Werewocomoco for the Jamestown colony looms, Pocahontas addresses her deity, the divine Mother, in voice-over. She begs the deity’s help, and describes the transformation she feels within herself (most of the scene is here, starting at 2:28):

Mother…

Where do you live? In the sky? The clouds? The sea?

Show me your face.

Give me a sign.

We rise, we rise.

Afraid of myself.

A god, he seems to me.

What else is life but being near you?

Do they suspect?

Oh, to be given to you… you to me.

I will be faithful to you. True.

Two no more.

One.

One.

I am.

I am.

A montage begins. We witness a flow of images accompanying these words – a temple to the divine Mother, Pocahontas worshipping with other Powhatans, her mortal mother, birds in flight, a sky illuminated by lightning. Her voice transforms these into the visual record of her inner experience, adding an aura of erotic desire to the relationships of community, nature, and spirit that the imagery symbolizes.

The seventh line of this address – “A god, he seems to me” – is an unmistakable allusion to the opening of Sappho, fragment 31, but there are also important correspondences between the two contexts (translation by Anne Carson, 63):

He seems to me equal to gods that man

Whoever he is who opposite you

Sits and listens close

To your sweet speaking

And lovely laughing – oh it

Puts the heart in my chest on wings.

Fragment 31 contains the speaker, a female addressee, and, sitting near her, a male third party. Pocahontas’ speech likewise contains three figures: a female speaker, the divine Mother and Smith, though it is significant that he is never named.

The montage depicts Smith smiling and laughing with Pocahontas, offering visual, rather than verbal, recollection of Sappho’s reference to “your sweet speaking / And lovely laughing.” Its effect on Pocahontas, akin to that of the addressee’s laughter on Sappho’s speaker, is the transport of joy that registers in her voice-over and the exuberant imagery that accompanies it.

The speaker in Sappho’s poem appears, in the first line, to desire this man who is like a god, but it is quickly revealed that her appreciation is reserved for the young woman with whom he sits. The man seems to her like a god only because he is so fortunate as to sit with the woman whom the speaker desires. Initially, both Sappho’s speaker and Malick’s Pocahontas seem to desire the male who has been positioned so prominently before the audience. Soon, we realize that the male in view is a bridge to the female addressee.

Pocahontas’ response to Smith in combination with her desire for the Mother deity creates its own complex relationship. She begins the voice-over with an address to her divine Mother. After asking her where She lives and proposing several possible places, Pocahontas says, “A god, he seems to me.” After this point, the address seems to shift toward Smith, but in fact the prayer to the Mother has not ended. As Thomas Wall observes, “Her attitude to [Smith] blends with her attitude to the Mother … (Wall, 74).” Indeed, the scene suggests that Pocahontas believes that the deity is to be found in John Smith and, for this reason, he seems godlike to her.

Pocahontas desires Smith erotically, but eros for her is not separate from a relationship to the divine source (i.e. the Mother) of all the world’s beauty and generative power. Pocahontas sees in Smith a path to this union — mistakenly, as it turns out. The blending of her address to the Mother and to Smith does not suggest the subordination of her erotic feelings for Smith to a higher love for the goddess, but rather that these two loves share the same space.

To be near him, she feels, is to be near Her. She underscores the unity of her love for Smith and, through him, to the Mother with the words: “I am, I am.” This is an allusion to line 15 of Walt Whitman’s One Hour to Madness and Joy (Blodgett and Bradley, 106):“O to have the feeling, to-day or any day, I am sufficient as I am!” Malick changes Whitman’s desired feeling into a feeling accomplished.

“I am, I am” also recalls the name of the Hebrew deity – Yahweh, or “I Am Who Am” – and makes for a significant close to a speech addressed to a goddess on the subject of divinity. The fullness and joy that Pocahontas feels in her oneness with Smith and her Mother find expression in the same words. When Smith leaves her, she says: “You have killed the god in me.” Not only is the god ultimately not in him, he destroys it in her, albeit temporarily.

When John Smith departs for the Jamestown fort, leaving Pocahontas behind in the Powhatan capital, the young girl meditates on the state of her desire in voice-over. Pocahontas’ words are addressed to a divine Mother deity: “My mouth is dry. My body trembles. My skin burns. I have two minds.” This sentence references three poems of the Greek poet Sappho.

The first comes again from fragment 31, where Sappho’s speaker enumerates the places on her body that love has afflicted, as she looks at the young woman whom she desires and the man next to her: “…tongue breaks and thin / Fire is racing under skin.” And “shaking grips me.” [i] Desire afflicts Pocahontas in like fashion: mouth, fire on the skin, and trembling body. Pocahontas then sums up her experience: “Love has unbound my limbs. This love is like pain.”

“Love has unbound my limbs” is a quotation from C. M. Bowra’s translation of the first line of Sappho’s two-line, fragment 130 (Higham and Bowra,  211).  “This love is like pain” appears to be a variation on the second line of the same fragment, where Sappho describes as, in Bowra’s translation, “a monster bittersweet and my unmaking.” Lastly, “I have two minds” is a translation of fragment 51: “I do not know what to do; I have two minds.”

Malick has arranged the allusions to Sappho so that, even though they contain references to several poems, they cooperate to preserve the trajectory of fragment 31. The evocation of joy comes in the first Sapphic voice-over (Pocahontas’ “like a god” speech). The disorienting, distressing, and overwhelming physical and mental side effects of love follow in the allusions that come after Smith’s departure. As in fragment 31, first comes the sweet, then the bitter.

 

[For a fuller treatment of classical allusions in this film see my chapter entitled “Sappho and Pocahontas in Terrence Malick’s The New World (2005)” in Screening Love and Sex in the Ancient World. Monica Cyrino, Ed. Palgrave-Macmillan, 2013.]

Bibliography:

Blodgett, Harold and Sculley Bradley, edd. Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass: Comprehensive Reader’s Edition. New York: New York University Press, 1965.

Carson, Anne. If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho. New York: Knopf, 2002.

Higham, T. F. and C. M. Bowra. Oxford Book of Greek Poetry in Translation. Oxford: Clarendon, 1938.

Wall, Thomas. “Rührender Achtung: Terrence Malick’s Cinematic Neo-Modernity.” In Terrence Malick: Film and Philosophy. Edited by Thomas Deane Tucker and Stuart Kendall. London: Continuum, 2011: 58-79.

 

 

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‘Gladiator’ (Scott, 2000) and the ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ (Whedon, 2004) Series Finale ‘Chosen’

[This post has been updated with further discussion of parallels]

Connections Under Examination:

  1. The final episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, season 7,  exhibit soundtrack elements that quote from Hans Zimmer’s film score for Ridley Scott’s Gladiator (2000).
  2. The series finale combines musical parallels, recognizable quotation, and a culminating battle that draws on several scenes from Gladiator.

Analysis:

Intimate scenes between Buffy and Spike in ‘Chosen’ and the earlier episode ‘Touched’ recall a meeting of Maximus and Lucilla in Gladiator, an allusion supported by soundtrack elements borrowed from Scott’s film. The relationship between Buffy and Spike finds a model in Gladiator‘s leading characters. Both pairs have shared attraction for one another in the past. While Maximus is devoted to his dead wife, which frustrates any possibilities for a romance with Lucilla, Buffy has had a history of erotic entanglement with Spike, but does not hold for him the love that he does for her. Theme music is the strongest element in the complex allusions to Gladiator in both ‘Chosen’ and ‘Touched’.

The soundtrack to the confrontation between Buffy’s potential slayers and the First Evil’s ubervamps, entitled ‘The Final Fight’ and credited to Robert Duncan, combines at least two elements of Gladiator‘s music: the opening battle (listen from 2:35-2:50) and the dungeon scene in which Lucilla visits Maximus (listen from 1:00-1:55). The link to the BVS battle scene is here. Listen from 2:05 through 3:25 as the two passages from Zimmer’s soundtrack are combined in Duncan’s BVS score.

The dungeon scene motif in the BVS score has recurred at other points in season 7. Most notably, it has already appeared in Spike’s ‘You’re the One’ speech in ‘Touched’. The link is here. The musical allusion becomes recognizable a bit after 00:45.

The BVS scenes — both Spike’s speech and the final encounter of Spike and Buffy in the Hellmouth — draw on the meeting of Maximus and Lucilla in the dungeon and the later encounter between Commodus and the chained Maximus  before their duel to the death. The BVS battle between the slayers and ubervamps moves directly into Buffy’s final intimate moment with Spike, combining the Gladiator‘s opening battle between Romans and Germans with the dungeon scene. In the final fight against the ubervamps, Spike wears a magical amulet which will provide him with some needed additional power. It turns out to be both a devastating weapon against their foes and fatal to its wearer. Energy bursts upward from Spike’s body and outward from his chest, striking down legions of the demonic foe.

Spike, immobilized in a column of light, recalls Maximus standing, shackled to the wall of his cell. When Buffy approaches him, the moment very much recalls Lucilla’s visit to his cell. Yet, it also evokes Maximus’ pre-fight confrontation with Emperor Commodus, in which the latter fatally stabs him, as he is suspended in chains. Immediately thereafter, they both rise on an elevator platform to the arena level. The fatal blow and the posture recalling the earlier meeting with Lucilla offer parallels for the Spike and Buffy scene, but it is actually Commodus’ ascent into a stream of light pouring into the sub level from the arena above that gives the strongest visual parallel for Spike. Compare the images below (and/or watch here for Gladiator, especially 0:13, and here for Buffy, especially 0:09):

spike immobilized hellmouthjoaquin-phoenix-as-commodus-in-gladiator

The visual analogy between the two figures draws a further link between Sunnydale High School and the Hellmouth over which it is placed, to the gladiatorial arena — a hellmouth of a different sort. This is a powerful parallel that resonates with many of the other motifs we have drawn attention to here, though it also draws interesting attention to the battles waged in throughout series as a spectacle for the gratification of an audience, which in this final conflict has acquired newly significant import (destroying the Hellmouth).

Spike has parallels with Commodus as well. Commodus is sadist who murdered his father. Spike kills his mother (after turning her into a vampire to preserve her life). During the scene in which Commodus stabs an immobilized Maximus, the emperor delivers a summative speech (00:25-1:12). He remarks how the crowds call for Maximus — “…the general who became a slave, the slave who became a gladiator, the gladiator who defied an emperor. Striking story. Now the people want to know how the story ends.” Spike’s last works before dying are “I want to see how it ends.” More generally, however, Commodus’ catalogue of Maximus’ transformations, while different in detail, fits well with Spike’s own odyssey. A bookish wallflower life, he became sadistic vampire, a slayer of slayers, the ally of a slayer, a slayer’s lover, and, in the last season, a warrior with a soul.

The gladiatorial dimension of Spike’s character takes a turn at the end of season 6, when he enters a series of single combat demon trials in order to regain his soul. In the final episode, Buffy and Spike occupy in roughly equal measure the space that Maximus’ character fills in Gladiator. Buffy is the fierce general of Gladiator‘s opening sequence, leading an army against a barbarous horde. Spike is the bereft, haunted warrior of Gladiator‘s conclusion, bound to death, yet all the more heroic for that. Spike ultimately embodies Maximus’ self-sacrificial return to the death that he evaded earlier — Maximus, when he escaped the murder plot that claimed his wife and son, and Spike, when Angelus sired him as a vampire.

Buffy and Spike are also both Lucilla figures — Buffy a witness to his sacrifice and courage, Spike an emotionally isolated individual, cynical yet in love, but with the discipline and dignity to accept its unrequited nature. Although Buffy addresses him in their final encounter in the Hellmouth, confessing her love after the fashion of Lucilla, it is Spike who resembles Lucilla more at this moment. Maximus loves his deceased wife, as Buffy presumably loves the absent Angel. Although there is fan debate over this, Spike at least believes that she does not love him. As does Lucilla, he must say good-bye in the knowledge that his love is not returned — at least not the same sort of love.

During the final fight in the Hellmouth, Buffy embodies the Maximus of Gladiator‘s opening sequence, who leads a Roman army against rebelling Germani. In the course of the fight, Buffy addresses the potential slayers, exhorting them to ‘hold the line’. This is a direct quotation of Maximus’ battle cry as he leads a cavalry contingent into the fight (the link is here; the phrase comes shortly after 3:13). In BVS, the ubervamps in the service of the First Evil are the parallels of Ridley Scott’s Germani. All this, of course, unfolds against the musical background of Robert Duncan’s Gladiator-like soundtrack.

 

 

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The Mote and the Storm: Milcho Manchevski’s ‘Dust’ (2001) and the Coexistence of Centuries

[The following post has been updated with regard to the question of whether Manchevski’s Dust should be considered a Balkanist text.]

The phrase ‘Centuries Coexist’, the title of this blog, comes by way of Milcho Manchevski’s movie Dust (2001), a complex film which begins in turn of the millennium New York, then through the narrating character’s memories, launches the viewer into a western set at the beginning of the twentieth century. This story soon changes form as well, when its main characters leave the United States altogether, finding their way to Ottoman-ruled Macedonia.

The narrator describes this journey from the U.S. to the Balkans as going from the Wild West to the Wild East, where “The centuries do not follow one another. They coexist.”

This description of the local time’s unorthodox arrangement could be an example of the sort of sentiment that Slovenian philosopher and cultural critic Slavoj Zizek indicted in Manchevski’s widely honored, earlier film Before the Rain (1994) and also in Emir Kusturica’s celebrated film Underground (1995):

“What we find here, of course, is an exemplary case of “Balkanism” that functions like Edward Said’s “Orientalism” — the Balkans as the timeless space on which the West projects its phantasmatic content. Before the Rain … although politically the opposite of Underground, participates in the same attitude. It offers to the Western gaze what it likes to see in the Balkans — a mythical spectacle of eternal, primordial passions, of the vicious cycle of hate and love, in contrast to the decadent and anemic life in the West….” (See the rest of Zizek’s discussion here). [1]

The idea of a place where centuries do not follow one another, but coexist, plays into the associations that Zizek describes: timelessness, mythic spectacle, the primordial, and so forth. In fact, Manchevski imports this epigrammatic characterization from the first page of an early twentieth century western account of Macedonia, which is contemporary with the events of the film: H. N. Brailsford’s Macedonia: Its Races and their Future (1906) (See the digital edition here):

“That nothing changes in the east is a commonplace that threatens to become tyrannical. Assuredly there is something in the East that is singularly kindly to survivals and anachronisms. The centuries do not follow one another. They coexist. There is no lopping of withered customs. No burial of dead ideas. Nor is it the Turks alone who betray this genial conservatism. The typical Slav village, isolated without teacher or priest in some narrow or lofty glen, leads its own imperturbable life, guided by the piety of traditions which date from pagan times.” (Brailsford, 1).

It is certainly interesting that Manchevski chooses to link his narrative to  the Balkanist gaze of a western journalist who dissects Macedonian culture, as he encounters it, and constructs a portrait of it in his own western terms. In so doing, does Manchevski complicate, or adopt Brailsford’s essentializing caricature?

‘Dust’ borrows heavily from Sam Peckinpah’s ‘The Wild Bunch’ (1969), a bloody epic about aging, brutal outlaws who flee the American southwest. Their erstwhile U.S. hunting grounds locked down by the security forces of the banks and railroads, they leave for Mexico, which Peckinpah depicts in terms akin to those Zizek cites above: mythic, primordial, living through cycles of national sorrow and release. This suggests that Manchevksi is comfortable appropriating aspects of the hegemonic gaze in order to tell a new story, drawing words and images from its storehouses.

It is of course possible that he has not succeeded in his attempt and instead has told the same westernized tale without significantly modifying or complicating its Balkanist (and generally ‘othering’) perspective. ‘Dust’ depicts the journey of protagonists through a continuum of wildness, from West to East. Rather than try to answer this question, I wish to consider the implications of his model (i.e., the coexistence of centuries) for thinking about ‘the West’.

Maria Todorova discusses the passage from Brailsford in the context of Balkanism here in her book Imagining the Balkans. Even as Todorova finds connections between Orientalism and Balkanism, she also identifies essentialism at work in Said’s definitions. Said posits in his notion of ‘Orientalism’ a system of western cultural production in which participants at myriad levels and stations in society — artists, teachers, artisans, policy makers, etc. — contribute to notion of the East, or ‘Orient’. Thus, paintings, films, plays, novels, academic histories, decorated objects, news articles, and a host of other modes of communication cooperate in producing an East of the western imaginary.

What Todorova questions in particular is the historical scope of Orientalism, which Said sees functioning in almost every era from the 5th century BCE onward. She writes (here):

“Despite his later strong declarations against attributing essentialism and ahistoricism to his category, Said overgeneralized in speaking of a generic Orient that accommodated Aeschylus, Dante, Victor Hugo, and Karl Marx. Maybe he could not resist the show of literary erudition, but the treatment of Aeschylus’ “The Persians” or Euripides’ “The Bacchae” at the beginning of a European imaginative geography articulating the Orient, brilliantly insightful as they were, were not helpful in protecting from charges that he was essentializing Europe and the West. The appropriation of ancient Greek culture and its elevation to the founding status of Western civilization was only a gradual and controversial historical process, whereas Said’s sweeping account of the division of East and West suggests a suspicious continuity.”

While I agree that it is anachronistic to describe the fifth century Greek tragedies as orientalist works, I also would not deny (and neither, I think, does she) that they become so for later centuries, after the “gradual and controversial historical process” of retroactive Greek cultural hegemony has gotten underway. The essentialism that Todorova finds at work in Said’s thinking mirrors a common self-essentialism regularly committed by Europeans and North Americans who think and speak of ‘the West’ as something timeless, distinctive, and rooted in ancient Greece (via Rome).

The metaphor of Manchevski’s title ‘Dust’ is wide-ranging as to the themes it evokes. Certainly the image speaks to the theme of mortality (e.g. “dust to dust,” “dusty death,” vel sim.), but beyond that to the byproducts of time’s passage: fragmentation, the illusions of form and formlessness, the tiny mote of the passing second and the vast storm of epochal transformation. The essentialism to which the classicist is prone often fosters the illusion of a continuous tradition.

Scholars of the Greek and Roman classical tradition have sometimes seen their roles as limited to identifying the presence of that tradition in other times and places. While this sort of investigation is important for documenting the reception of the Greco-Roman legacy, its findings by themselves are not very useful tools for persuading new audiences of that legacy’s value. The simple fact that a later event or idea has occurred in recognizably similar form in a Greek or Roman context is not inevitably interesting or compelling to those who are not already interested in the subject.

That said, notions of a continuous classical tradition need not be simplistic. Sigmund Freud famously uses the city of Rome as an analogy for the human mind, in which multiple levels of historical experience (the archaic, the classical, the late antique, etc.) sit atop one another. A slightly different model, favored increasingly in the field of classical reception [2]  looks to the model of the palimpsest — a piece of material which has been written upon multiple times, the previous writing  erased to make room for new writing, yet leaving discernible traces behind. On this model, the traces of earlier texts (with their thoughts, influences, inspirations, etc.) are detectable ‘beneath’ the surface of more recent texts (i.e., in its past), but also along side them.

Somewhat akin to this last approach, Brailsford’s early 1900s model presents a non-vertical, non-linear model as a qualification to what he considers a cliche — that ‘nothing changes in the east’. There, so the cliche runs, history as a dynamic reality is either absent or invisible. In a sense, Brailsford introduces an important modification. History is indeed there, merely in a different configuration from what westerners are used to seeing and therefore, it is located in their blindspot. The model of centuries in co-existence acknowledges change. The past remains always present, but with an accumulation of interruptions and additions, as new centuries join the mix. Yet, this is not to say that Brailsford escapes the traditions of cultural analysis that he criticizes, or that he manages not to continue Orientalist and related Balkanist perspectives. I would argue that he does seed his model of the East with the possibility of productive transformation insofar as he reframes the question of historical change in terms of visibility to the western viewer.

I would argue that Manchevski, in choosing to frame his protagonists’ journey  to ‘the wild East’ in terms that, in their original context, question what westerners do and do not see, adds significant nuance to the film and makes it far more difficult to pronounce it a Balkanist text without further qualification. Apart from this question, I find myself drawn to what Manchevski is attempting and how he frames it. The co-existence of centuries represents an important model for those of us concerned with the significance of terms like ‘Classics’ and ‘the West’. To visualize the centuries side by side, as they have unfolded in Europe or anywhere else, enables us to see connections otherwise obscure to us. It helps us to find new questions for ancient sources.

As a coda to this post, I mention an article which I believe demonstrates well the sorts of dialogue that becomes possible when we consider the the present century alongside other centuries — rather than as inheritor of a legacy — is Mallory Monaco Catarine’s “Finding the West in ISIS Propaganda.” Catarine examines Xenophon’s 4th century text, the Oikonomikos, on marriage and household management with ISIS’s own manifesto on these issues. She finds startling similarities, and in the process deconstructs both sides of an essentializing East/West dichotomy. Films are potentially a vital forum for such dialogue as well, but in whatever ways we seek meaningful historical dialogue, the essentializing of the west remains a perilous blindspot for those engaged in discovering and advocating for the relevance of Greek and Roman antiquity.

[1] Although it may not necessarily exculpate him from the charge of Balkanism, Manchevski is not naive in his deployment of the motifs that  Zizek highlights. Anyone interested should consult his director’s commentary on Criterion edition of Before the Rain.

[2] The field of reception examines how Greek and Roman civilization and its artifacts are reimagined in later historical periods up to the present.

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‘Gladiator’ (Scott, 2000) and ‘Paths of Glory’ (Kubrick, 1957): Borrowed Scenes and a Polemic on Violence

Ridley Scott’s Gladiator is widely (and accurately) seen as the combination and recreation of Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus (1960) and Anthony Mann’s Fall of the Roman Empire (1966). Important parts of the the beginning and ending of Scott’s film, however, are modeled on Kubrick’s earlier World War I film Paths of Glory (1956). Scott borrows from Paths of Glory in part because that film offers him models for the sort of character and issue that he is concerned with in Gladiator. Also, I believe Scott is engaging in a polemic with Kubrick’s anti-war message. Gladiator‘s allusions to Paths of Glory footnote Scott’s debt to the earlier film, but they also serve to distinguish what he is doing from what Kubrick did.

In Paths of Glory, Kirk Douglas’ Col. Dax is a just and courageous man. He leads his troops in battle, sharing the danger, and does not care about career or laurels. In this regard, he is very much like Maximus in Gladiator. The issue that is implicit in Paths of Glory and about which Scott cares is the relationship between violence and political agency. In Kubrick’s film, the common soldiers suffer violence and inflict it on others, but they possess no agency in any sort of political community. Col. Dax, it seems at first, does or might have agency, but ultimately even he cannot bring any effective influence to bear on his superiors in the cause of justice. Scott, in his film, adopts a similarly hopeless political scenario. After a brief moment in which the ideals of the noble Marcus Aurelius seem to offer some sort of higher purpose, the place of violence quickly becomes that of serving the cynical interests of corrupt authorities. The possibility that violence might play a positive role in the community, or on its behalf, seems out of the question. Scott then builds a drama around creating a just relationship between violence, the individual, and the political community.

The key early scene from Paths of Glory is here (0.00-1:30). The scene in Gladiator (2000) that quotes from it is here (1.30-1:50). In each case, a commander walks through his troops who separate as he approaches and look at him in respectful acknowledgement. In Paths of Glory, French troops are preparing for an assault on a German position. In Gladiator, Roman troops prepare to make their attempt on a German position. These scenes establish Kirk Douglas’ Col. Dax and Russell Crowe’s Maximus respectively as commanders profoundly respected by their troops.

Gladiator’s conclusion involves Lucilla, daughter of Marcus Aurelius and sister of the evil emperor Commodus, slain only moments before. She enters the gladiatorial arena, where she stands by Maximus’ fallen body and addresses those gathered about, rallying them with political purpose. The end of Paths of Glory takes place in a tavern, where the French soldiers are spending a few hours before returning to the front for another assault. The proprietor brings forward a young German woman to sing (Christiane Kubrick, credited as Susanne Christian). The proprietor gives an extended, humiliating introduction for the singer, as the French soldiers yell and catcall.

The singer begins a sentimental folk song in a shy manner, well below the noise level of the soldiers. As she sings, the soldiers become quiet and start to hum along, their mood becoming somber. Soon, each one seems lost in reflection. The scene is here (beginning at 2:20). The Gladiator scene is much busier. Lucilla’s part, I argue, parallels that of the German singer. It comes right after Maximus’ dying reverie of reunion with his family. Instead of a song, she gives a stern speech to those gathered in and around the arena: the commander of the Praetorian guard, a Roman senator, Roman soldiers, gladiators, and so forth. The scene is here (0:28-1:44). Although, the content is very different, in both cases a woman enters a performance space (stage, arena). In each, she emerges from the margin in the aftermath of the plot resolution to transform the emotional context of an audience of surviving males. In both films, the female figure establishes in this audience a tone of common seriousness inflected by a sense of personal loss.

Both Gladiator and Paths of Glory also introduce the fraught relationship between the commanding officer and the political forces that control, support, or subvert him. Gladiator shows a concerned Emperor Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris) before the assault on the German position, but only introduces him fully afterwards. Similarly, the conniving Roman senators and Marcus’ ambitious and disturbed son Commodus show up after the assault to set their plans (and the film’s plot) in motion. Paths of Glory, on the other hand, begins at French military headquarters, introducing the commanders as fundamentally removed from and disinterested in the experiences of their soldiers. They are also consumed by private ambition and largely devoid of human feeling. The film then moves to the trenches, where Col. Dax and his regiment bear the brunt of a disastrous battle plan and, after its failure, endure the generals’ search for scapegoats to blame for the failure.

Although there is a general correspondence between Gladiator and Paths of Glory in that each features a conspiracy of higher-ups victimizing others, in the former the principal victim is the commander (Russell Crowe) and in the latter, three common soldiers singled out for execution. Maximus, on the other hand, is collateral damage in Commodus’ coup d’etat against his father the emperor. Maximus survives an assassination attempt only to discover while on the run that his family has been murdered. A fugitive, he is seized and sold to a gladiatorial company. As a gladiator, Maximus slays with proficiency his often faceless (because masked) opponents in a manner utterly unlike Kubrick’s Spartacus which strives to humanize the combatants. As its plot unfolds, Gladiator departs from the ethic of Paths of Glory by quite directly glorifying combat in multiple contexts: (1) as a means of preserving international order (crushing German rebellion); (2) in the service of private causes (revenge); (3) and in political revolution through an attempt to depose Commodus and restore the Republic. Viewed as a polemic against Kubrick’s (and anyone’s) pessimistic read of violence’s place under conditions of political disenfranchisement, Gladiator seems almost like an attempt to rescue the positive potential of violence from the clutches of the cynical observer.

The violence that the soldiers of Paths of Glory commit and endure does not improve their lack of agency. Concern for their homeland in its struggle with Germany is remote from their lives, as depicted in the film. Their final act of spectatorship, watching and listening to the young German singer, enables them to experience a moment in which they can reflect privately as individuals apart from the futility of their position. All this is the more poignant because of their helplessness in the face of their immediate future as soldiers.

Lucilla’s speech performance in the arena may not impact the crowds in the stands, but she is the means by which Maximus’ death is given meaning in the film. A fatally wounded Maximus’ combat with the evil emperor Commodus removes him as an oppressive political force. For Maximus to succeed as a redeemer of violence, however, his contribution has to end there. If he lives and makes a speech, after his enemies have fallen, about reconciliation and moving forward, he becomes a politician and the movie suddenly becomes about the celebration of civic life. So Lucilla enters the scene. Civic life in Gladiator begins as a woman praising a man’s foundational acts of violence. Her speech in praise of Maximus infuses a motley crew of imperial guards, politicians, and gladiators standing in the arena not with inward tending emotionality, but with a feeling of community beyond the divisions of social class, as well as a shared sense agency – although what that will mean beyond burying Maximus is uncertain. Kubrick in Paths of Glory lets the suffering of soldiers count for nothing outside of what it means in their experience of it. Scott in Gladiator builds his epic in opposition to this message.

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Stannis, Renly, and Brienne: The GoT Season 5 Finale’s and D.W. Griffith’s ‘Intolerance’

Updated: This post previously included a section on parallels between the G0T season 5 finale and 300: Rise of Empire (Murro, 2014). That section is now a separate post.

Spoiler Alert: I discuss events from the season 5 finale of Game of Thrones.

In this post, I treat references in the GoT Stannis storyline to the Babylon sequence in D. W. Griffith’s ‘Intolerance’, which recounts the fall of Babylon to Cyrus the Great of Persia.

Brienne of Tarth is devoted to her slain lord Renly Baratheon. She loves him for the kindness that he showed to her. Having witnessed his death at the hands of a shadow with his brother Stannis’ features, she has devoted herself to (among other things) avenging him. Brienne’s devotion is one of several qualities that recall the ‘Mountain Girl’ from D. W. Griffith’s ‘Intolerance”s Babylon sequence.

As Brienne loves Renly, so does the Mountain Girl love from afar Prince Belshazzar of Babylon. Renly’s easy openness corresponds to the same quality in Belshazzar. The prince brings the goddess Ishtar and the worship of love into Babylon, a move that excites the hatred of the high priest of Bel-Marduk who fears loss of status and power, if other gods and tolerance in general are admitted to the city. In GoT, Lady Melisandre is priestess of R’hllor and lover of Stannis Baratheon. She prophesies his ascent to the Iron Throne of Westeros. A convert to her religion, she becomes its stern advocate, burning all those who resist it.

The religion of R’hllor has some superficial characteristics in common with that of Griffith’s Ishtar. It is a mostly new god to Westeros, as Ishtar is to Babylon, and it is connected to eros. The Red Priestess Melisandre seems to conduct many of her religious duties in sexual or otherwise eroticized ways. Griffith’s Ishtar, however, is connected to love in the broader sense, and also to tolerance. The closer parallels to Intolerance are with Cyrus’ Zoroastrian religion and the jealous and intolerant Babylonian priests’ cult of Bel-Marduk. The former corresponds to R’hllor’s novelty in the sense that it only just enters Babylon’s orbit via Cyrus’ invading army, whereas the latter evokes Melisandre’s hostility to other religions in general.

Zoroastrianism in Intolerance is represented in the film by a spinning sun disc symbol erected in Cyrus’ camp. There is nothing repressive about the representation of the religion per se in the film but it is the totem of Cyrus and to that extent is emblematic of his championing of Bel-Marduk and his militaristic attitude in general. Fire becomes the significant common denominator between Cyrus’ religion and that of R’hllor. The film departs from the positive Biblical portrait of Cyrus as deliverer of the Jewish people from their Babylonian exile. Stannis marching on Winterfell parallels Cyrus marching on Babylon, albeit with very different results.

The fall of Babylon, the defeat of the nobel prince Belshazzar, the death of the Mountain Girl, and the ascent of brutal and intolerant Cyrus with the help of the treasonous priests of Bel-Marduk constitute the tragic conclusion of ‘Intolerance”s Babylonian narrative. The triumph of the psychopathic Ramsay Bolton and his barely less repugnant father over the deeply flawed, yet noble Stannis is the sobering outcome of one thread in GoT’s season 5 finale. Yet the intolerant Stannis, like Cyrus, is responsible for the death of Renly, his brother (GoT’s version of Belshazzer), not to mention his daughter (and indirectly his wife). He is in short a manifestly intolerant fellow.

Brienne, devotee of Renly and GoT’s answer to the Mountain Girl, does not die like her counterpart, but lives to avenge him by killing his destroyer Stannis. Even here, there is an evocation of Griffith’s film. Although she dies in the Persian assault on Babylon, the Mountain Girl has another fate in an alternate ending, where ‘the Rhapsode’, a youth who loves her, discovers her in the aftermath of the battle.

Having apparently expended her devotion to Belshazzer in the lost battle against Cyrus, the Mountain Girl allows the Rhapsode to embrace her, whereupon she departs with him. None of this storyline figures in GoT, but the choreography of Brienne’s slaying of Stannis does recall it, albeit with gender roles reversed. Stannis lies wounded at the foot of tree, as the Mountain Girl lies at the base of a monolith. The Rhapsode stands over her, as Brienne stands over Stannis. In ‘Intolerance’, the scene begets love, in G0T death. See the ‘Intolerance’ scene here and compare Stannis’ final moments in the link (about 5:43 and following).

Although GoT mixes and matches associations with these films, it is consistent in aligning Stannis with Persia. A quick internet search directs one to an interview in which George R. R. Martin notes that the religion of the Red God R’hllor is broadly based on Zoroastrianism, which was the official religion of Achaemenid Persia (with aspects of the medieval Cathars as well). See the interview here — mention of Zoroastrianism comes at 50:50). R’hllor is the ‘Lord of Light’ and recalls Ahura Mazda, supreme Zoroastrian divinity associated with truth and light. The Persian Empire is overwhelmingly associated with tolerance towards the customs of those whom it conquers. In this respect, however, it recalls Griffith’s version of the Persian Cyrus and his association with the Babylonian priests of Bel-Marduk.

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