November 5, 2017

Mario Camerini: “Ulysses”

Ulysses

Movie
First Released: 1954
Run Time: 115 minutes

Synopsis: This lush adaptation of Homer’s grand epic the Odyssey stars Kirk Douglas as the hero Ulysses. After victory in the Trojan War, Ulysses embarks on a ten-year journey back to his kingdom. But before he can reunite with his beloved wife (Silvana Mangano), he must defeat the brutal Cyclops, escape the spell of Circe who turns his crew into swine, and outwit the Sirens who lure sailors to their death. Peril is everywhere — even at home, where the arrogant Antinous (Anthony Quinn) plots to steal Ulysses’ wife before he can complete his final quest in this powerful tale of heroism.

My Thoughts: The eight-episode miniseries Troy: Fall of a City is due to hit the BBC and Netflix next year and I am pretty ridiculously excited. Thinking that I should stop wasting that excitement on constantly refreshing the series’ IMDb page, I decided instead to watch some of the older Trojan War-related movies that I hadn’t seen. First up, Kirk Douglas makes his second appearance on this blog (following his role as Peter in Mourning Becomes Electra), this time as the star of the 1954 peplum Ulysses.

Douglas’s Ulysses is hard to get a handle on. We first see him for just a split second during a flashback to the fall of Troy. Then we see his meeting with Nausicaa, where he has lost his memory. (I’m not sure why the filmmakers introduced this idea and I’m not even sure what the in-story reason for it is supposed to be. His memory returns with equally little reason.) After a bit of that, we get a flashback to Ulysses and his men as they almost humourously stumble upon the cave of the Cyclops. This movie gives us three different introductions to its main character and he acts differently in each one. This is a problem that continues throughout the movie — sometimes Ulysses wants to go home, sometimes he wants to go on an adventure, sometimes he’s desperate to keep moving, sometimes he’s content to stay in the same room for months. Not to say that you can’t have a Ulysses with contradictions — of course you can — but this movie feels like a highlight reel of the Odyssey, jumping from scene to scene with little care taken to ensure that they fit together as a whole. Ulysses doesn’t seem to change because of his personality or his experiences; he changes to suit the filmmakers’ plans for whatever scene is up next. The editing is abrupt, Greek names are mixed with Roman names (Zeus and Athena but Ulysses and Neptune), and the Cyclops scene doesn’t even include the “Nobody” ruse, which was an odd surprise.

Another thing that stood out to me is how much in this movie happens offscreen. It’s true that I don’t really need to see the Cyclops’ eye being stabbed, but when Ulysses shows up in Ithaca talking about how he just spoke with Athena? That feels like an odd scene to leave out. Definitely the biggest offender comes in the very last moment of the movie, when Ulysses is about to finally embrace the wife he hasn’t seen in twenty years, and — he steps offscreen. End movie. Roll credits.

What kind of movie gives the hero his happy ending but doesn’t let you see it?

Thinking about this scene made me curious, so I went back and rewatched the two scenes where Ulysses and Penelope converse, and I discovered that the two characters are only in the same frame for a grand total of about eight seconds. And it happens at the end of the scene where she doesn’t even know it’s him! I don’t know if this has something to do with the fact that this movie was filmed with Douglas (and Quinn) saying his lines in English and everyone else saying their lines in Italian, but it’s baffling! We don’t even get one nice shot of the reunion to cheer us up after the bloody homecoming scene.

Perhaps I shouldn’t rag on this movie so much when almost everything above is something I thought of after I finished it. I enjoyed it while I was watching it! The story moves quickly and the sets and costumes are well done; I especially liked Circe’s sparkling outfits. The effects used to make the Cyclops are also pretty good, if a little uncanny valley at times. Silvana Mangano plays both Penelope and Circe, which is an interesting idea. I thought the Siren scene was surprisingly good — just one long take of Ulysses as he panics because he believes he’s sailing away from Ithaca — and Ulysses’ reunion with Telemachus was as moving as his reunion with Penelope should have been. Rossana Podestà, who would play the title role in Helen of Troy two years later, brings a calm but youthful energy to Nausicaa that I really liked, although the English language version of this movie can’t decide how to pronounce her name. I also liked Anthony Quinn’s scheming Antinous and wouldn’t have minded seeing a little more of him.

So that’s Ulysses. Pretty uneven, but not awful. Although to be honest, I think it’s the type of mindless movie where, if I hadn’t watched it with the intention of reviewing it, I already would’ve forgotten about it.

Buy it at: Amazon.com, Amazon.ca

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July 21, 2017

Mini-Reviews #3

Torn from TroyPatrick Bowman: Torn from Troy

YA Novel
Pages: 199
First Published: 2011

My Thoughts: Torn from Troy, the first book in the Odyssey of a Slave trilogy, tells the story of Alexi, a poor Trojan orphan. When Troy falls, Alexi is taken as a slave, accompanying Odysseus and his crew through the events of the Odyssey.

The main thing that stood out to me when I read this book was Bowman’s depiction of Troy at war. Not only is this book not at all about the Trojan royal family (only Cassandra – here called “Cassie” for some reason – puts in a brief appearance), but Bowman commits to writing his protagonist as a poor boy who’s lived nearly his whole life in a city under siege. The casual tone Alexi uses to talk about the terrible things he’s witnessed makes sense for the character in a way that I was absolutely not expecting from a book I found in the children’s section, so praise for that. The bruality of Alexi’s world continues after he’s taken as a slave by Odysseus – here called “Lopex” for some reason – although apart from that, there aren’t too many surprises in the narrative.

When I finished Torn from Troy, I figured I would continue with the trilogy, and so I read the first several chapters of the second book, Cursed by the Sea God. Unfortunately, this is where the trilogy fell apart for me. I have a pretty strong dislike for stories where the characters travel from one place to another, only spending enough time to get a superficial understanding of each one-dimensional place before moving on. (Is there a name for this kind of story? Let me know because I have no idea what to call it.) The story of Odysseus’s return home does more or less fit into this category, but the Odyssey plays enough with its structure and has enough other things going on that I think it’s one of the best examples of it.

In the first few chapters of Cursed by the Sea God, however, Bowman’s Odyssey retelling becomes everything I dislike about these travel stories. The characters arrive on Aeolia, an island with a dangerous secret! Well don’t worry, because it only takes Alexi about fifteen minutes to discover the secret and solve the problem. The solution is extremely simple and one of the first things you would think to try, and yet the people of Aeolia have suffered from this problem for years. Thank goodness Alexi came along and was able to solve it with the information he spent five minutes gathering.

This kind of story can work when you’re talking about heroes in mythology, but as a section in a trilogy that until that point had made an effort to be a realistic portrayal of the life of a slave in antiquity, it was very disappointing. There was no depth or complexity to the Aeolia chapters and it took me out of the story completely. But if you’re a fan of this kind of travel story – or if you’re in this trilogy’s target demographic – you’ll probably enjoy Odyssey of a Slave more than I did.

Buy it at: Amazon.com, Amazon.ca

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Shin Toroia MonogatariTakashi Atoda: Shin Toroia Monogatari

Novel
Japanese Title: 新トロイア物語
Pages: 689
First Published: 1997

My Thoughts: (I admit it’s a bit weird to post about a Japanese novel on an English language blog when that novel has not been translated into English. Read on if you’d like a glimpse inside this retelling from another part of the world …)

Shin Toroia Monogatari – the title can be parsed as either The New Story of Troy or The Story of New Troy – follows Aeneas from his childhood to his death, covering both the events of the Trojan War and the quest to build a new Troy. For the longest time, the uninspired cover image, the dry lecture of an opening paragraph, and my mistaken belief that Atoda usually wrote non-fiction had me believing that this novel would be little more than a by-the-book retelling of the Trojan War myth. Now that I’ve finally gotten my Japanese to a level where I was able to read the whole thing (with a dictionary to help me here and there), I was happy to discover how wrong I was. Atoda plays with the story plenty, and for the most part this book was a really surprising, really interesting read.

There are light SPOILERS in the paragraphs below!

My favourite thing about this book, believe it or not, is its Paris. Paris is not usually one of my favourite characters, but I loved him here. His decade-long absence from Troy is made into something of a mystery – did Priam send him away as punishment for something, or did he leave because he wanted to? – so that you’re not quite sure what to make of him when he reappears. And he’s a bit of a jerk at first, flat-out telling a young Aeneas that Aphrodite has only been declared Aeneas’s mother because Aeneas’s father paid the oracle to say so. But as soon as I got to the brutally honest ramble in which he lists all his flaws and compares them to Hector’s virtues, making Aeneas promise that he’ll choose Hector if he ever has to choose between the two of them, I was sold. This Paris is just as imperfect as he usually is, but just having him be aware of it and honest about it really endeared me to him.

I also really liked this book’s version of the death of Achilles. Achilles is killed in the night, and Aeneas has every reason to believe that Paris did it as revenge for Hector’s death. But when Aeneas goes to ask Paris about it, Paris laughs it off as the work of the gods. His refusal to take credit for the best thing he ever does for his city – for the brother he knew was the better person – is excellent, I love it. New favourite Paris.

My second favourite thing about this book will come as no surprise: I really enjoyed the scene where Aeneas visits Helenus and Andromache after the war. The way their excitement at seeing each other again transitions into tension between Aeneas, who believes Helenus is duty-bound to go with him to rebuild Troy, and Helenus, who has put Troy behind him and started a new life, is fantastic. I love how Aeneas seems to think that “You’re a prince of Troy” is the only reason Helenus should need for joining Aeneas on his journey, and how he never seems to fully understand why Helenus turns him down.

Unfortunately, after Aeneas and Helenus parted ways, my enjoyment of the book slowly but steadily declined, to the point where I had to force myself through the last hundred pages. I think the main reason for this is that Atoda’s Aeneas is a pretty empty character. He is “pious Aeneas” but not much else. During the first half of the book, where he acts as our viewpoint character for the events in Troy, he reacts so little to what happens around him that I often forgot he was there. On top of that, it really feels like all of the potentially interesting challenges Aeneas encounters are quickly wrapped up with an “Ah well, I’m sure I did the right thing.” As the story goes on and the more interesting characters are left behind, we enter Atoda’s version of the Latium conflict, where all of the new characters are either completely good or completely evil. It doesn’t help that everyone in this section speaks in such overly polite language that the scene in which Aeneas confesses his love to Lavinia felt to me like some kind of parody. I’ve read a few Japanese reviews of this book and none of them have mentioned this section at all, so it may very well be that it didn’t work for me because I’m not a member of the culture that it was written for – in the author’s note, Atoda does admit that he feels his Aeneas is a modern Japanese man dropped into the ancient world – but I found it pretty tough to get through. (Not that that stopped me from tearing up a little when the last pages of the book started echoing the first pages of the book …)

Although the last hundred pages did diminish my enthusiasm for Shin Toroia Monogatari, overall I did really enjoy it and all the surprises it offered. So far it’s the only Japanese retelling of the Trojan War I’ve found that allows its author some creative license. I’ll keep my eye out for another.

Buy it at: Amazon.co.jp, BookLive (where you can also preview the first fourteen pages in your browser)

February 26, 2017

Ancient Greece and Rome in Tokyo, 2016

While I didn’t do any Trojan War reading in 2016 (a fact both unfortunate and baffling), I did do my best to enjoy the ancient art and artifacts that made their way through Tokyo, where I am currently living. Look below the jump for my photos of and comments about an ancient Greece exhibit at the Tokyo National Museum, a Pompeii wall painting exhibit at the Mori Arts Center Gallery, and a one-woman performance of Greek tragedy at the Akasaka CHANCE Theatre!

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November 27, 2015

Tsukuba’s Daphne Tree

Take exit A3 out of Tsukuba Station in Ibaraki, Japan, walk past the bus loop, climb a flight of stairs and you’ll soon come to what I have taken to calling the Daphne tree.

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November 27, 2015

Ancient Greece at the Royal Ontario Museum

In April of this year, I found myself in Toronto visiting a friend who was kind enough to take me to the Royal Ontario Museum. The museum is one of the largest I’ve yet been to and I’m pretty sure we didn’t even see half of it before our feet started throbbing, but of course the highlights for me were the Gallery of the Bronze Age Aegean and the Gallery of Greece. The ROM, unusual among the museums I’ve visited recently, allows photography in most of its galleries, so I hope you will enjoy my very amateur photos of these priceless works of art.

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November 18, 2015

Heinrich Schliemann at the Ancient Orient Museum

In 2012, when I visited Tokyo’s Ancient Orient Museum (古代オリエント博物館 Kodai Oriento Hakubutsukan) for the first time, I found it to be a small but well-designed museum housing many small artifacts and a few larger replicas. Well, it seems I’m back in Japan, and now that I live much closer I had definitely intended to visit the museum again sometime, but that “sometime” turned to “right away” when I learned they were hosting a special exhibit about everyone’s favourite action hero, Heinrich Schliemann.

Although the exhibit – titled ギリシア考古学の父シュリーマン 初公開!ティリンス遺跡原画の全貌 (translated by the museum as “Father of Greek Archaeology, Heinrich Schliemann; The First Exhibition of Tiryns Original Paintings”) – featured many small items from countries Schliemann visited and excavated in, the focus was 28 original pages from Schliemann and Wilhelm Dörpfeld’s report on the excavations at Tiryns. The pages belong to the Tenri University Sankokan Museum in Nara, which not too long ago announced that they’d confirmed that many of the penciled notes in the margins were written by Schliemann. In all honesty, I found these pages to be a strange thing to build a museum exhibit around and I’m baffled that they’re being sent around the country. These are pages that have been published and are not all that difficult to obtain. I admit I was impressed by the fact that I was standing mere inches from pieces of paper that Heinrich Schliemann himself wrote on (in English! so I could read it and everything!!), but that’s after many hours spent reading about him/watching documentaries about him/watching ridiculous action movies about him. I’m not sure how much interest this exhibit really holds for the more casual Schliemann fan.

Actually, the way the Ancient Orient Museum presented Schliemann was perhaps more interesting to me than the items on display. WOW they are in love with him. The first room of the exhibition showed three short videos on a loop, and in one of them a university professor from Nagoya raves about Schliemann’s genius. Schliemann’s trench is mentioned, but only because it shows his legacy still lives on at Troy; there is no mention of the artifacts it surely destroyed. This is especially odd when a corner of the museum is currently dedicated to tracking the ongoing destruction at Palmyra, accompanied by an upsetting message about how the residents of the 21st Century have failed in our duty to protect it.

A sign near the end of the exhibit started to talk about how not everyone thinks well of Schliemann, but only mentioned that the famous story of his first encounter with the Trojan War might be fiction before veering back to talk about what an amazing man he was. In the whole exhibit there was not a single mention of Frank Calvert, but there was a comic strip near the entrance that told Schliemann’s life story in a colourful manga style (understandably but still strangely focused on his trip to Japan that one time) (I was so upset that I wasn’t allowed to take pictures of it). It was bizarre to visit this exhibit after reading David A. Traill’s Schliemann of Troy, which presents Schliemann as very much less than perfect as both a person and an archaeologist.

Another odd sign was the one stating that the Trojan Horse appears in the Iliad. Come on guys, that’s a rookie mistake.

One other thing I feel I must mention is that this exhibit felt less like a special exhibit and more like an overlay. Every other special exhibit I’ve visited has been in its own part of the museum, separate from the regular exhibits, but maybe the Ancient Orient Museum doesn’t have the space for that? The Schliemann exhibit was mixed right in with their regular exhibit. Their recreation of Schliemann’s hut, for instance, was the same as their recreation of an ancient house, just with different furniture, and their stela and Rosetta Stone replicas were still in their usual spots. My favourite part of all this was the Egypt room, which maybe wasn’t changed at all from its usual arrangement except for the addition of a sign at the entrance that more or less said, “What did Schliemann think of Egypt during his travels there? Let’s look at these artifacts and imagine what he might have thought.”

Overall I found it to be a very strange exhibit and I’m not sure I would recommend it unless you already have a strong interest in the subject. According to the video in this article, the pages will be travelling to Yokohama and Nagoya next year, so keep an eye out if you’re in the area. I admit I’m tempted to visit them in Yokohama just to see how differently they’re presented there.

Visitors to the museum aren’t allowed to take pictures, but you can find a few photos on the exhibit’s official page and the museum’s official Facebook page. Or you can look below the jump for three useless pictures I took of posters!

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July 14, 2015

I’m back!

It was certainly not my intention to abandon this blog for seven months – especially not after posting an average of twice a month last year, a feat of which I was quite proud – but, unfortunately, it seems that’s what I did. My weak excuse is that the time I usually dedicate to Trojan War fangirling was instead spent trying to watch every play in the Shakespeare canon, but now that that’s finished I hope to be posting here again soon.

In the meantime, I thought I’d share a picture I’ve been meaning to share as evidence for my theory that Greek mythology is everywhere. When I was in a tiny town in northern Japan, I lived in a house that was filled with various items that had been left behind by decades of previous English teachers. One day, as I attempted to clear out some of the clutter, wondering which god I had offended that I should be made to live in such a messy house, I reached into a closet and pulled out this:

… the Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite, or the last thing I would have expected to find in a closet in a tiny town in northern Japan.

On that note!

December 14, 2014

Yukio Ninagawa: “The Greeks” (Screencaps #3)

Following my review of Yukio Ninagawa’s The Greeks, this post contains screencaps from The Gods, which includes “Helen,” “Orestes,” “Andromache” and “Iphigenia in Tauris.” Read on for seventy-two screencaps! Continue reading

December 14, 2014

Yukio Ninagawa: “The Greeks” (Screencaps #2)

Following my review of Yukio Ninagawa’s The Greeks, this post contains screencaps from The Murders, which includes “Hecuba,” “Agamemnon” and “Electra.” Read on for sixty screencaps! Continue reading

December 14, 2014

Yukio Ninagawa: “The Greeks” (Screencaps #1)

Following my review of Yukio Ninagawa’s The Greeks, this post contains screencaps from The War, which includes the prologue, “Iphigenia in Aulis,” “Achilles,” and “The Trojan Women.” Read on for forty-three screencaps! Continue reading