Monday, 12 June 2017

Wonder Woman (dir. Patty Jenkins, 2017)


I've been meaning to write up a blog post on Wonder Woman ever since I saw it last week, but there's so much to say, I hadn't yet had a chance! I'm going to focus here on Wonder Woman as portrayed in these films (this one and Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice). I'm dimly aware of some aspects of her comic-book origins - created in 1941, not long after Batman and Superman, and so on - but I don't know enough about them to go into any detail. I also think it's worth considering the film on its own merits, since movie makers have fairly free reign over how much they take from a comic book tradition anyway (Guardians of the Galaxy, for example, is fairly far removed in terms of detail from the comic-book versions).

OK, so I guess I'd better start with the Classics stuff, since that is the purpose of this blog! While her superhero identity is as the red, white and blue-bedecked Wonder Woman, Diana of Themiscyra is actually an Amazon, a race of warrior women from ancient Greek mythology that I've talked about here and in substantial detail here.

The Amazons in Greek mythology exist to be tamed. They are both a menace from nightmares - a race of powerful, warrior women, a threat to patriarchal Greek society - and magnetically attractive, Achilles falling in love with the Amazon Penthesilea at the moment of killing her (or, sometimes, with her corpse after death). Sameer's line in this film, "I'm both frightened and aroused", sums it up rather well.

But ultimately, in ancient mythology, the Amazons exist to be tamed. Their threatening aspect, their military skill and physical prowess, must be conquered and brought under control. Similarly, as women, they must be taken out of their all-female society and brought under the control of men - hence Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons, ends up married to Theseus, King of Athens (and promptly dies leaving a wetter-than-wet son who gets cursed to death by his own father due to the evil machinations of his step-mother).

Wonder Woman's Amazons, unsurprisingly, have a very different purpose. Diana's story arc in this film is not to be tamed, but to discover her own power and strength. Indeed, if anyone is to be tamed in this film, it is men, who have gone completely out of control in their drive for destruction. In an interesting reversal of the ancient myth, the Amazons exist in this reality in order to tame men.

I have to confess I felt there was something a bit uncomfortably Rape of the Sabine Women-y about the Amazons' backstory and purpose. I'm going on my rough memories of one viewing of the film here, but the initial drive to create the Amazons, if I remember rightly, was implied to be Zeus trying to stop men from fighting (egged on by Ares) by placing wives, mothers and sisters around them, and I seem to remember an image used in the film inspired by the famous Jaques-Louis David painting of the intervention of the Sabine women.

The story of the Sabine women is that early Romans, lacking wives, kidnapped women from the local Sabine tribe, raped them and forcibly married them. By the time their brothers and fathers got their act together to rescue them, the women had children with the Romans and, motherhood being the most essential aspect of a woman's life as far as ancient societies are concerned, the women leapt between the men begging them to stop fighting because they loved them all equally as family. It's a political tactic the Romans continued to use in real life, using marriages to try to hold together fragile political alliances (not always successfully!). Women and their fertility become a tool to hold men together - in some real-life historical cases, if the woman dies, so does the alliance. However, the women themselves have no real agency - they are married off where their fathers and brothers find it useful and if their husband later rejects them, they are helpless then too.

Fortunately, the backstory of Wonder Woman's Amazons develops in a rather different way. Rather than non-combatants with babies, these Amazons become warriors themselves, intended to end warfare with... warfare. They live by the sword and in some cases die by the - well, bullet. They are fighting fire with fire. Umm, I'm not how I feel about that either. But they're awesome, kick-ass women so what the heck, let's go with it.

Warfare need not be their only role. Diana is, of course, the Latin name for the virgin huntress goddess, Artemis (nothing much to do with the Amazons in mythology), goddess of hunting, wild animals, childbirth and young girls up to the age of marriage (about 12-15). In Greek mythology, goddesses are generally only allowed to get involved in masculine things like war and hunting if they are virgins - and so, not really women, as they never have children (except for that one time Hephaestus tried to rape Athena but only got stuff down her leg, which resulted in her son, Erichthonius).

Thankfully, Diana defies this by allowing Captain Kirk to show her this thing called love, and implies she wasn't without options on her all-female island anyway (the line about men being essential for procreation but not for pleasure got a good laugh out of me!). In this film, she is able to be a sexually active woman without necessarily becoming a mother - one of society's (and science's, if we're talking about heterosexual sex) big steps forward since ancient Greece!

These Amazons completely defy the idea of motherhood as an essential characteristic of women, without which they are incomplete. Only one Amazon is a mother, but while Diana's note that men are essential for procreation might imply more of them might have been mothers if they had men around, none of the Amazons seem to be crying out for volunteers - they seem perfectly happy in their almost child-free environment. Women have an entirely different, very specific role in this world.

Of course, the film also features an appearance from the Greek god Ares, god of war. David Thewlis' Ares is a very interesting take on the character. I've heard a few suggestions that, while his casting works very well for the sections in which he whispers subtly in people's ears, portraying the creeping influences that bring about warfare rather than the fighting itself, people seem to be less sure about his performance as the revealed Ares at the climax. I was fine with it, to be honest. The traditional depiction of War embodied as the epitome of masculinity and strength gives War characteristics that I'm not sure it really has. I have no personal experience of war, so I may be completely out of line here, but it seems to me that the real, lived experience of warfare, rather than featuring strength and power and impressive feats, is more a nasty, insidious, unpleasant experience of pain and suffering that leaves its mark whether it results in physical injury or not, and Thewlis' performance did manage to imply some of that.

The World War One setting is also a very interesting choice. Wonder Woman's comic book origins place her during World War Two, but there are several reasons for choosing World War One instead. Probably most significantly for the film-makers, the story is already similar enough to Marvel's Captain America: The First Avenger, set in World War Two, as it is (right down to the fact they both feature a white man called Chris playing a man called Steve who goes down in a plane!).

But a World War One setting has other, thematic advantages as well. During the earlier part of the film, I was rather bothered by Steve's casual insistence that the Germans were the bad guys and the Allies the good guys. It's bad enough when World War Two is over-simplified in this way but at least the actions of the Nazis make that a little more reasonable. World War One, however, was a giant mess in which pretty much all parties were as much to blame as the others - explained here!



But of course, as the film goes on, it becomes clear that this is actually the point. Ares has been whispering into the ears of people on all sides. There are no good guys and bad guys, just humanity in a mess. I think the film could have done with emphasising that a bit more, as I feel like it got a bit lost in the final act, and it's not helped by the presence of Ludendorff (a real person who, in fact, resigned in October 1918, became very anti-Semitic and was for a while associated with Hitler, but later split with him and died in 1937) and Dr Maru, who seems to be a sort of proto-Josef Mengele. Still, if the ultimate messiness and pointlessness of war is one of the themes the film wants to drive home, the First World War is certainly a much clearer example of that than the second.

World War One is also an overwhelmingly masculine war. Wars in earlier periods of history featured men doing most of the actual fighting, but women and children frequently becoming collateral damage in raids, sieges and other attacks. From World War Two onwards, although women weren't on the front line, there were many more of them involved in the armed forces. In World War One, women were on the front line as nurses and ambulance drivers, and women and children were killed in French and Belgian villages and in aerial attacks. But the trench warfare that formed the greater part of World War One (something rather nicely explained to a generation who have never known veterans of that war in this film) was overwhelmingly masculine. This makes Wonder Woman and her mission really stand out, as, apart from the presence of her evil counterpart Dr Maru, she is a woman striding into an almost entirely masculine arena.

I seem to have talked about gender rather a lot here, but the fact is, at the moment, it's a conversation that's impossible to avoid. This is not the first female-led superhero movie, but it is the first to be well received. It also follows Marvel's mystifying lack of Black Widow merchandise on the release of Captain America: Civil War last year, on top of their continued refusal to give Black Widow her own film, so it's impossible not to have a conversation about its portrayal of gender and its female protagonist.

Wonder Woman has outperformed the female-led superhero movies that came before it at least partly because although Wonder Woman is beautiful (which is commented on) and wears revealing clothing, she is not shot as an object through the leering male gaze, but as an audience identification character, by a female director. It's also, quite simply, a good movie. It is one of the most frustrating truths about Hollywood executives that they don't seem to understand, no matter how much they are told, that audiences don't want "comic-book movies" or "sword and sandal movies" or "science fiction movies" or 'non-science fiction movies" or "movies in which Johnny Depp plays a pirate" or anything else in particular - they just want good movies, about whatever, starring whomever.

Of course, this is also the best-received movie in the DC Extended Universe. I have to confess, I didn't think it was as desperately amazing as some have found it (honestly, I've also seen Alien: Covenant, Pirates of the Caribbean 5 and The Mummy in recent weeks and enjoyed them all) but I did think it was a good, solid comic-book movie that did exactly what I wanted it to. My favourite moment was, I suspect, the same as many others' - the moment when Wonder Woman rose up out of the trenches to cross No-Man's Land. I was blubbing already by that point, and Chris Pine's performance at the climax had me going again. It's a good film. Asking it to reinvigorate the DC universe, educate a new generation on the basics of World War One and prove to studio executives that women can carry action films seems like a heck of a lot - but I think this film can do it. Good for Wonder Woman!

Monday, 20 March 2017

Kong: Skull Island (dir. Jordan Vogt-Roberts, 2017)

Contains major spoilers

Caught this movie this weekend (after seeing the live-action Beauty and the Beast, which is probably my favourite live-action Disney adaptation so far, though this may have something to do with it starring Dan Stevens, aka Matthew Crawley from Downton Abbey, aka an actor I have loved since he was in obscure BBC drama The Line of Beauty). Kong: Skull Island was quite a bit better than I was expecting, though my expectations were quite low and I'm not really that into monster movies anyway, so that may not be saying much!

One of the things I found very odd before going to see the film was the fact that it's a mash-up of a Vietnam war movie and the story of King Kong, which seemed a bit strange. Over the course of the film, that aspect of it did start to win me over, as it did seem to be doing some interesting things with that setting. The story had some interesting things to say about war - for example, one character points out that sometimes an enemy doesn't become an enemy until you make them an enemy, which is an important point that runs through the film, and is illustrated in reverse - an enemy can become a friend - in John C. Reilly's Hank Marlow's mourning for the man we first saw trying to kill him because they were fighting on opposite sides in a war.

The complexities of the issue are illustrated nicely through the group's changing attitudes towards Kong. Kong killed a number of the group when they arrive - that is an unassailable fact. However, the problem with Samuel L Jackson's character is, that fact is all he sees. He has no interest in either the reasons Kong behaved that way, which might seem valid from Kong's point of view, or in the ramifications of his desire for revenge on Kong, which might seem temporarily satisfying but will ultimately lead to more death and destruction for everyone. These are important issues and rather nicely brought out.

Of course the main reason for the Vietnam war setting is that this is basically a re-telling of the Heart of Darkness story that formed the basis of Apocalypse Now. The number of images and sequences in this film that come straight from Apocalypse Now are countless, from helicopters to sunsets to images of silent, staring indigenous people to journeys up a jungle river. Tom Hiddleston's character is even named after the author of Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad. At the centre of the story is Jackson's Colonel, echoing Apocalypse Now's Colonel Kurtz, a man who does not want to return home, who cannot see beyond his desire for revenge, who has been twisted into madness by war.

There is another story that is arguably the through-line of the film, however, and that is John C. Reilly's character Hank Marlow's story. It is with Marlow that we begin and end the film (discounting the post-credits sequences that refers to the wider cinematic Monsterverse) and his story is an even older one - the Odyssey. Like Odysseus, Marlow has been prevented from returning home for a long time, has a grown-up son he has never met, and worries about whether his wife is still waiting for him (though he has been gone 9 years longer than even Odysseus). It's no wonder, then, that the boat that brings salvation closer to him is named Athena, after the goddess who protects Odysseus and helps him. It's a tiny little Classical reference, easy not to notice, but it might just be a key to the true heart of the film - not the journey of Jackson's grim Colonel or those trying to stop him, but ultimately, really the story of Marlow and his long, epic struggle to get home.

Friday, 24 February 2017

Types of historical fiction


I'm at the Historical Fictions Research Network conference this weekend, presenting with Tony Keen on our ongoing project looking at screen representations of Roman Britain. While sitting here listening to very interesting papers and wishing I wasn't going to miss the panel on counter-factual history, I got to thinking about the distinct types of historical fiction and how they relate to each other.

Defining what historical fiction is probably seems like a pretty simple job - it's fiction set in the past. But several of the works being discussed at the conference aren't technically historical fiction, but science fiction. Alternative history stories draw on history but are set in alternative worlds where things turned out differently, like The Man in the High Castle, set in a north America where Germany and Japan won World War Two. Another SFF form of historical fiction becoming popular is retellings of real events with fantasy elements added, like Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell.

I wonder if there's another category that should be included under 'historical fiction' as well. In our project on representations of Roman Britain we'll be thinking, however briefly, about the Wall in Game of Thrones. I'm also looking at a new project on Classical reception in the works of Terry Pratchett, and have been discussing whether the Discworld novels set for a substantial section in a fantasy version of an ancient world (primarily Pyramids, and to a lesser extent, Small Gods, parts of Eric, and The Last Hero) belong in a different category to the Classical references found more generally in Pratchett's work. George RR Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire (the book series behind Game of Thrones) presents a pseudo-medieval world rooted in real medieval practices and including events, most notoriously the Red Wedding, based on real medieval incidents. These are works set in a secondary fantasy world, but clearly drawing on specific periods of real history. (We could even throw in pseudo-medieval retellings of the stories of King Arthur based on medieval literature rather than Anglo-Saxon history, though that's something else again). Aren't these also forms of historical fiction?

This ties in to our understanding of ancient literature as well. I have often pointed out to students that the Homeric poems are works of historical literature, though they are clearly also what would in modern terms be fantasy (I am sure the Greeks did not regularly encounter talking horses or battle rivers). For the most part, these of the type that puts fantasy elements into historical events, though the ancient definition of 'historical events' (e.g. the Trojan War) is a bit different from the modern one! Secondary world fantasy and portal fantasy are rather rare in Greco-Roman literature, perhaps because real world fiction so often included fantasy elements, though underworld narratives might be considered an exception there. 

The biggest advantage of writing secondary world fantasy inspired by history rather than historical fiction with fantasy in it, of course, is that the author is released from any need for historical accuracy. All historical fiction takes liberties with history, but in this century, there is an expectation that it will be reasonably, largely, accurate to the current interpretation of what happened (this was not the case when either the ancients or Shakespeare were writing, of course!). I think Martin has actually discussed this though I can't remember where - but writing fantasy inspired by history gives the author so much more freedom to ignore potential objections from modern readers who are inclined to complain about inaccuracies in historical fiction. It also, of course, introduces doubt as to the outcome and allows the author to surprise the reader with events like the aforementioned Red Wedding.

In terms of reception, the clearest difference between these and more traditional historical fiction is that people are less likely to learn all they know about a period of history from these stories (though it might still happen!). But in terms of the way the author uses their material, they clearly exist in the same general sphere. And even audience/reader reception may be similar in some ways, for although the events may be different, where aspects of an historical culture are clearly represented, something of that representation is bound to stick in the reader's mind and colour their idea of that historical period.

This isn't a comprehensive summary of types of historical fiction, and one step further on from historically inspired fantasy must be historically inspired secondary world computer games like the Fable series, though the 'history' might become increasingly set dressing more than anything else in those cases. But it is perhaps a neglected area in research on historical fiction which, if it embraces alternative history (which is, essentially, secondary world fantasy or science fiction) should surely embrace historically inspired secondary world fantasy as well.

Wednesday, 22 February 2017

John Wick: Chapter 2 (dir. Chad Stahelski, 2017)

He got a new dog!

This weekend I ended up, through a combination of timings, movie length and the preferences of my companions, going to see John Wick: Chapter 2 and The Great Wall at the cinema, despite the many other impressive movies I still haven't seen! I am a big fan of Keanu Reeves, who I think genuinely think is under-rated as an actor (OK, there's a certain similarity to his performances, but they work) and John Wick: Chapter 2 was by far the better of the two films.

Spoiler alert! I'm about to discuss the film in detail, including the ending.

The film is, of course, ridiculous. In interviews for the Empire Podcast Spoiler Special on the film, both director and star described it as such, with Reeves accurately describing it as 'ridiculous but fun'. It is over-the-top, totally amoral (enjoy watching people kill each other for money and/or over mafia business!) and, generally, nonsense. But it does what it does well and is an entertaining ride.

It's also a film make with genuine care and attention, regardless of how daft the plot and setting may be. That applies to the care taken in the depiction of guns, cars and martial arts, and the artistic choices made throughout the film. Director Chad Stahelski talks enthusiastically in the interview about his love for Greek and Roman mythology (he even uses the word 'plebeians' in everyday conversation!) and the film is jam-packed with references to Classical literature and ancient history.

These include but are not limited to: the names of Ruby Rose's mute assassin (Ares, the Greek name of the god of war, Mars in Latin), Bridget Moynahan's dear, departed wife (Helen, the most beautiful woman in the world) and Lance Reddick's concierge (Charon, the ferryman to the underworld); the death of Claudia Gerini's Gianna D'Antonio (slashing her wrists in a huge Roman-style bath in the middle of an ancient ruin, rather than allowing herself to be executed, the traditional method of execution/death for disgraced or condemned Roman elites); the setting for the middle act of the film, in Rome with a strong focus on the ancient forums and Trajan's markets between the 19th century Victor Emmanuel II monument and the Colosseum, and the basic nature of the plot, concerning Italian organised crime (which has its roots in ancient Roman culture) and the eternal cycle of violence and vengeance.

It's the eternity and inescapability of this cycle that is main theme of the film, and one of the reasons for the substantial use of Classical allusions. Underneath all the cartoon violence, the film is about the difficulty of escaping a destructive spiral once in it. Unlike the personally motivated revenge story of the first film, in this case, John Wick is pulled back into the cycle of violence by a prior commitment he has no strong feelings about, into a situation with no way out (since the first rule of assassination is to kill the assassin). He tries to break the cycle by getting rid of Santino D'Antonio, but the rules he breaks in order to do so only drag him down deeper.
Hercules and Lichas, by Antonio Canova.
Ironically, the original is actually in Rome.

This is especially emphasised by my favourite Classical allusion in the film, one repeated several times. In a museum in New York City, several conversations take place in font of a series of sculptures of the Greco-Roman gods, with, front and centre, a late eighteenth-century sculpture of Hercules killing Lichas. In Greek mythology, Hercules (or Heracles in Greek) is dying from a poisoned cloak sent to him by his wife, who thought it was imbued with a love potion. The cloak makes him feel as if he is on fire as it slowly kills him. In agony, Hercules catches sight of the slave, Lichas, who brought the cloak to him from his wife. He grabs him and hurls the unlucky slave into the sea.

The statue is a perfect summary of the film itself. John Wick refuses to give up and die, fighting for survival, but he is dying nevertheless; he has lost his home and all traces of his life with his wife, and turned his back on his life as an assassin, and while Winston gives him a stay of execution at the end of the film, it cannot last forever. However, he is determined to take down those who condemned him as he dies, refusing to go quietly but creating as much suffering for those he blames in his rage as he is able to do. It's a dramatic, moving sculpture and nicely lends the weight of ancient myth to the film.

I enjoyed the film a lot, even if sometimes it was for the wrong reasons (I could not stop laughing at the Matrix reunion between Reeves and Laurance Fishburne). John Wick belongs very much to a particular genre, but that is not an excuse for careless film-making, and everyone involved in this is well aware that however silly the story, it still needs to be produced in a way that creates a satisfying experience. Reeves clearly loves what he's doing - I'd recommend listening to the Empire podcast interview, as well as his interview on Mark Kermode and Simon Mayo's film review podcast, which are both a joy. It's that love and care that make this a thoroughly solid example of the genre and a good night out.

P.S. The Great Wall was pretty much the opposite of this film. Historical objections about the real reasons the wall was built are not really the point - it's fantasy, so of course the wall was built for different reasons in this alternative reality. The thing is, it's silly and reasonably entertaining, but displaying none of the love and care of John Wick: Chapter 2, and featuring millions of the green snot monster from outer space from a particularly poor episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Though Pedro Pascal was funny, and I did like Tian Jing's kick-ass commander Lin Mae.

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