By Matthew Gumpert.
“The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.” (Roger “Verbal” Kint, The Usual Suspects )
The Oz Effect
The 1963 film Jason and the Argonauts (directed by Don Chaffey), a Hollywood version of the Hellenistic epic, Argonautica (or Voyage of the Argo), ascribed to Apollonius Rhodius is, it goes without saying, a favorite among classicists. The film looms large, for example, in Martin Winkler’s Classics and the Cinema (1991), itself a classic, we might say, of the classics-meets-film genre. Peter Rose’s contribution to Winkler’s volume, “Teaching Greek Myth and Confronting Contemporary Myths” (1991: 17-39), for example, spends a fair amount of time on Jason and the Argonauts. But first there are the usual justifications; discussions of popular culture conducted by classicists tend to be accompanied by justifications to be taken seriously as scholarship.[i] Rose volunteers that it is legitimate for a classicist to deal in popular cinema, since both ancient myth and popular culture appeal on a “visceral level” (20) – by which Rose appears to refer to an emotional and idiosyncratic response that resists analysis. But Rose appears to be little interested in the essential qualities of the filmic medium itself.[ii]
For Rose, as for other critics, where this film most clearly succeeds is in its special effects. Here, too, the approach tends to be rhetorical; the special effect with which the critic is truly concerned is the effect upon the spectator. In films such as Jason and the Argonauts, writes Rose, “the ‘mythic’ element . . . is most obvious in the special effects that transcend normal expectations and take us into a realm beyond the rules of everyday reality” (30). This is exactly why Socrates approves or disapproves of poetry (in the Ion, for example, or book 10 of the Republic): not only does poetry substitute something fraudulent for something real, but it disables precisely those critical faculties that would ordinarily allow us to distinguish the one from the other. What is supposed to be special about special effects is precisely that they don’t appear to be effects at all, but simply real.
In discussions of the emotional impact of cinema upon the spectator, there is thus a recurrent discourse on the special effect as hallucination or hypnosis, as that which appears to transport us from one place (where we really are) to another (where we are really not). We may call it the Oz effect; since The Wizard of Oz will recur as a leitmotif and a point of reference throughout the course of this article. In his Screening History (1993), Gore Vidal recalls being captivated by the early sword-and-sandal film Roman Scandals (1933). The film tells the story of a down-and-out Oklahoman named Eddie Cantor who is “transported,” after an injury to the head, to ancient Rome: “much as Dorothy was taken by whirlwind from Kansas to Oz,” as Maria Wyke puts it in Projecting the Past: Ancient Rome, Cinema, and History (1).
The Oz effect is thus part and parcel with the mimetic pretensions of the filmic art itself, which are themselves largely determined by the Platonic fascination with (and fear of) the image. Cinema is regularly viewed as the latest in a series of purely technological developments (situated narrowly within the modern era), and the aim of which is the increasingly accurate representation of the real. Thus Maria Wyke argues in Projecting the Past:
“The new technology of the moving image could be seen as a further development of a nineteenth-century technical progression through engraving, lithography and photography towards ever more refined ‘realistic’ representations, whether of the present or the past… Thus one of the most fascinating attractions which the new medium soon claimed to offer was the possibility of reconstructing the past with a precision and a vivacity superior to that of documentary sources or the nineteenth-century historical fictions of painting, theater, and the novel.” (Wyke 1997: 9)
There are a number of problems with such characterizations of the advent of film. Not only are such historicizing narratives in thrall to the essentially Platonic principle of verisimilitude – that the closer the representation to the real, the better – but they are blind to this thralldom. Technology remains, ideally, as it was for Plato, the midwife of truth. Such narratives are incapable, ironically enough, of appreciating film as a mimetic practice: as a mechanism, not only for reproducing the real, but for disguising that very act of reproduction, and the means by which it is accomplished. These same narratives are therefore unable, it follows, to apprehend film in the Aristotelian rather than the Platonic manner – in the light of the Poetics rather than the Ion, or Republic 10 – as a formal object in its own right, an object designed to represent the real, not simply reproduce it. Thus these narratives of technological progression refuse to grant film – just as Plato refused to grant poesis (by which Plato designated any mimetic practice, from poetry to painting) – the status of a techne (or ars).
Because these apparently new and improved technologies of mimesis are narrowly regarded as merely increasingly efficient mechanisms for reproducing (and disseminating) the real, the value of the real itself – the original, the authentic, the anterior – must inevitably diminish. And so the advent of popular culture – vulture for the masses – is viewed, inevitably, as a sign of modernity, and strictly tied to a particular historical moment. Benjamin, in “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” famously situates cinema at the center of this rise of a new form of culture (and concomitant degradation of the old). But in Benjamin, too, and his followers, a certain fetishization of technology (divorced, ironically, from the concept of techne), and a fascination with the pure scope and scale of these mechanisms of reproduction (instead of with its essential nature) has prevented us from seeing the role that technologies of reproduction have always played, even in antiquity, in both accentuating and blurring the distinction between the original and the copy, between culture for the elite, and culture for the masses.
Here, too, our very attachment to the technological (one which borders on idolatry) prevents us from seeing that the very division between high art and popular culture is itself already predicated on the Platonic distinction between the real and the representation thereof. From T. S. Eliot’s What is a Classic?, to Gilbert Highet’s The Classical Tradition, to Bernard Knox’s Backing into the Future: The Classical Tradition and its Renewal, the concept of the classical is tied to the same distinction, and specifically to the notion of the authentic. In the last work Knox can be heard lamenting that in an era of “cultural dilution, of plastic substitutes, of mindless television shows, not to mention television dinners and instant coffee, the genuine article is no longer valued” (1994: 305). In this case myopia is compounded by hyperopia: for the critic who exhorts us to train our vision upon the classical object as the “real” thing fails to see that the very distinction between the real and the illusory had long been contested before the advent of that object: The classical sculpture was always the latest version of an earlier prototype, etc., etc.
This article seeks to resist this thralldom to the technological, and its reflexive fascination with (or fear of) popular culture as a purely modern (and purely quantitative, not qualitative) phenomenon, by reading film alongside (and not against) literature, Hollywood alongside the Hellenistic, Jason and the Argonauts alongside the Argonautica. Reading each text in the light of the other, I hope to challenge the (all too often unacknowledged) tyranny of the Platonic system of mimesis – what we might call realism (I term the ramifications of which I attend to later in this article), and in particular by exploring the extent to which both the Hollywood movie and the Hellenistic epic depend on the deployment of what we might call, in both cases, special effects (the function of which, we will see, is above all to animate: to set in motion that which is immobile, to bring to life that which is inert) designed – and this is, perhaps, the crucial point – not to camouflage themselves, but to call attention to themselves as such.
The reading I seek to carry out here represents a kind of filmic philology, one that looks not only for the classical in the filmic, but the filmic in the classical.[iii] Others have tried to practice such a Filmphilologie before, as Winkler has pointed out (2001: 18)[iv] but their work remains, for the most part, fully inscribed within the old Platonic perspective, and thus fails in fact to read either text – the literary, or the filmic – closely. If there is some recognition, on the part of the film philologist, of a distinct mimetic techne, it remains a purely literary one. Thanks to the development of the new digital technologies, Winkler argues, “we are now in a position to ‘read’ a filmic work in ways similar to those in which we read a literary one” (2001: 19). The fact that quotation marks must be attached to the act of reading, when its object is the “filmic work,” but not the “literary one” suggests, however, that Winkler does not take the comparison seriously, he is speaking “figuratively.” As a result, neither text is being read as a mimetic practice in its own right. Note, too, the emphasis on the apparently new hermeneutic possibilities opened up by digitalization: another example of the blind fetishization of technology; the fact is, we have always been in a position to read (without quotation marks) a filmic work in ways similar to those in which we read a literary one. This article, in any case, seeks in part to reverse Winkler’s assertion: to show that we are now in a position to read a literary work in ways similar to those in which we read a film.
The obvious locus classicus for identifying what some French critics have called “le pré-cinema” (cited by Winkler 2001: 14) in antiquity is, of course, Plato’s famous Allegory of the Cave in book 7 of the Republic.[v] It is for this very reason that Winkler cites the Allegory of the Cave in a section entitled “Greco-Roman Cinema?” (2001: 11-14), although “somewhat shortened and adapted to reinforce the cinematic analogy” (2001: 11). But the very fact that Winkler finds it necessary, or expedient, to “reinforce the cinematic analogy” suggests that that is all it is for him: an analogy, one that we are not supposed to take seriously. Winkler’s emendations thus prevent us from seeing what is truly at stake, mimetically speaking, in both the cinema and the cave.[vi]
“Plato’s point is to provide an analogy to human life as a whole in connection with education and the attainment of philosophical knowledge; my focus is on the setting of the allegory to which he resorts to make his point immediately comprehensible. My changes in the text do not interfere with the situation Plato conjures up before his readers’ mental eyes, not even when I replace the originals mention of “firelight” with a neutral “light” or when I substitute Plato’s description of people literally immobilized by chains with a figurative immobilization (“riveted to their seats”) of the kind which film audiences sometimes experience and which enthusiastic journalists promise them in their rave reviews of new films.” (Winkler 2001: 12)
What Winkler’s attenuated analogy fails to acknowledge, however, is that Plato’s allegory on education cannot be separated from its setting. For Plato, the seduction of mimesis, and which leads us away from knowledge of the truth, is a cinematic event, if we understand the cinema in its essence as a form of mimesis: a seduction by representations that seem to be real.
The changes he makes to Plato’s original text indicate that Winkler is more interested in the arrested fascination of the spectator than that with which he is fascinated, or how it succeeds in fascinating. This is typical of most work that goes by the name of film philology. In their failure to attend to the image itself, to its formal properties, as it were, critics such as Winkler uncannily assume the Platonic position, which refuses to grant the image the status of a formal object; for Plato, there is no image (in) itself. And in this reflexive swerving away from the image to its intended audience, in this transference, that is, from effect to affect, it is as if the critic has himself fallen under the spell of the image’s effect, that effect the special nature of which is to blind us to its very existence. To cite one of Roger (“Verbal”) Kint’s more memorable lines in Bryan Singer’s 1995 thriller The Usual Suspects, “The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.”
Special Effects and Jason and the Argonauts: “Bringing Myth to Life”
It has always been for its special effects, the work of “wizard” Ray Harryhausen (the standard epithet associated with Harryhausen’s name), that Jason and the Argonauts is extolled. Harryhausen, who also created the special effects for another work in the canon of “classical cinema,” Clash of the Titans (1981), is revered among cinephiles as one of the pioneers of stop-motion photography or stop-motion animation, the manipulation of animated models or puppet figures to create the illusion of movement. When such figures are integrated with real landscapes and live action, the technique is called dynamation or superdynamation.
Stop-motion photography, in the words of Lee Krystek, “is a form of animation” which “allows otherwise lifeless objects to move and change.” Discussions of Harryhausen’s special effects, almost without exception, are dominated by this animatory trope, which turns dynamation into a miraculous gesture, and Harryhausen into a contemporary divinity or Dr. Frankenstein. The animatory trope is central to Jon Solomon’s discussion of Jason and the Argonauts in his The Ancient World in the Cinema. Solomon thinks this is a very good film – thanks in large measure to Harryhausen:
“…the film surpasses all its predecessors in recreating the fantastic aspects of Greek myth. With his unique superdynamation, Harryhausen brings to life such creatures as the huge, bronze… robotic Talos … [the] skeleton battalion marches on the stunned Greeks, attacking, hacking, and leaping with incredibly lifelike movements” (2001: 113-14, italics mine).
Lifelike here means, in effect, real; and making things look real is surely the effect under which all other special effects must be subsumed.[vii]
Now, there are at least three ways in which superdynamation functions to simulate the real. First, by the representation of movement, the very sign of life. Second, by the representation of that movement in specifically visual terms. “Harryhausen’s genius,” Solomon writes, “takes our impression of the Greek mythological world into a new dimension of visual reality” (2001: 115). That impression is largely textual in origin, of course, and the realism of Jason and the Argonauts consists in essence, then in taking something conceptual or textual and rendering it visible. And third, by the juxtaposition of things that, we know, cannot move (skeletons, for example, or plastic dinosaurs), with things that can, and which constitutes precisely the advance of superdynamation over previous efforts at stop-motion photography. This is close to what Roland Barthes called l’effet de réel, the reality effect: by which he refers to the simple citation of apparently insignificant objects embedded in a linear narrative as a way of lending it the illusion of authenticity.[viii] In both nineteenth-century fiction and twentieth-century film “real life” is manufactured through the deployment of objects which, we know full well, are neither real nor alive.
On the Virtues of the Archaic: Or, How I Learned to Love the Bad
One might consider at this point what is perhaps the most famous example of superdynamation in Jason and the Argonauts, singled out by Solomon, for example, in his enthusiastic encomium: the attack of the “skeleton battalion.” Watching scenes like this, it is hard not to face the truth: namely, that this is a very bad film. This badness does not make it less enjoyable to watch. Nor does it render it unfit for scholarly analysis. The question then becomes, wherein does this badness consist? For it is badness of a particular kind; badness that has something to teach us, and not only, I think, about film. I want to suggest that our response to Jason and the Argonauts – and to its very badness – can serve as a model for reading the Argonautica itself, and by extension all Hellenistic poetry – as proto-cinematic literature.
My argument is tied to Harryhausen’s special effects, designed, we are told, to bring myth “to life.” In fact, this is precisely what they fail, laughably, to do: wherein lies, paradoxically, their success. For the patent artifice of the technique – the fact that we cannot appreciate the illusion as anything but illusion, is precisely what makes it effective. (Whether that effect is intended or, as is more likely, is a consequence of a still nascent technology, is another question). But compare Harryhausen’s pioneering and primitive stop-motion animation with today’s computer-generated imagery (or CGI), which are capable of producing essentially seamless simulations: illusions that can no longer be distinguished from reality. In that case effects succeed precisely to the extent that they no longer seem special. [ix]
Indeed, one might make the same argument about the virtues and vices of Technicolor, the popular term for a number of distinct color film processes developed by the Technicolor Motion Picture Corporation, and which was regularly employed in Hollywood films between 1922 and 1952. Many of the films which first used this new technology proclaimed that fact proudly to the audience: an announcement that would appear to undermine the very illusion such technology was designed to achieve. And, like the spectacular effects of Hellenistic sculpture and poetry, Technicolor is too vivid, too bright, too real to be convincing. One of the great works in Technicolor, The Wizard of Oz (1939, directed by Victor Fleming) makes a virtue of this self-defeating technology, in that the dramatic transition from black-and-white to Technicolor is an integral element of the plot; indeed, one could argue that The Wizard of Oz is a film about Technicolor. In the course of that film, one will recall, the Wizard himself is unveiled as nothing more than a glorified producer of special effects.
One might also add that as a mode of animation, making that which is motionless appear to move, superdynamation is not an exotic supplement to the business of film making; on the contrary, it suggests the archetypal technique of all film as a moving picture (in which nothing really moves). All film, in this sense, is a special effect. The difference is that superdynamation is more obvious: a special effect that calls attention to itself as such.
Jason and the Argonauts plays a large part in Frederick Ahl’s essay “Classical Gods and the Demonic in Film.” After a discussion of Harryhausen’s contributions to the film, Ahl concludes:
“special effects of early film often seem ludicrous nowadays, since general understanding of what technical magic does . . . eventually catches up with the special effects artists of film . . . and unveils the ‘illusion.’ When we look back at past film ‘magic,’ therefore, it is necessary to see it with a certain historical sympathy” (2001: 42).
But can it truly be said that such effects were ever meant to be “veiled,” or could ever be received as anything but “illusion”? Was it not part of their charm – whether accidental, or intended – that they seemed archaic and ludicrous from the beginning?[x]
Wyke points to the mimetic as well as promotional value of developments such as Technicolor, widescreen, stereophonic sound, and CinemaScope in the marketing of Hollywood epics set in classical (and early Christian) Rome. Thus in a discussion of the use of CinemaScope in 20th Century-Fox’s 1953 epic The Robe, Wyke writes: “The pleasures of looking were accentuated by CinemaScope, while the money and labor invested in the manufacture of those pleasures were self-consciously paraded within the widescreen epics and in the extra-cinematic discourses generated around the film’s production and exhibition… The reconstruction on screen… of ancient Rome came to stand for Hollywood’s own fantastic excess” (31-32). And so Michael Wood can write in America in the Movies that “spectators of Hollywood’s widescreen epics were invited to position themselves not only as pure Christians, but also as Romans luxuriating in a surrender to the splendors of film spectacle itself” (173). And Wyke concludes: “The projection of ancient Rome on screen has functioned not only as a mechanism for the display or interrogation of national identities but also, and often in contradiction, as a mechanism for the display of cinema itself” (32).
There are a number of ways in which Harryhausen’s “classical” films function in the same way: not only as a representation of classical myth, but as a mechanism for the display of cinema itself; and, in particular, cinema as a structure of special effects the primary purpose of which is the resuscitation of the real, the animation of the inanimate. Jason and the Argonauts everywhere puts this animatory process on display. This is, in other words, to a large extent a film (like the Wizard of Oz) about special effects, achieved, of course, by way of special effects.[xi] If Jason is merely a pawn in the hand of the gods, the gods, too, are mere pawns in the hands of men (as when Jason brings the tiny statue of Poseidon to life). Harryhausen, Ahl writes, “shares with Vergil and Ovid” – and with Apollonius, he may have added – “the notion that god is as much an artefact of man as man is an artefact of god” (53).
The Medusa Effect
I dwell, for a moment, on the notion of the artefact: for the artefact is more than the created object. It is the object without life, the object as that which does not and cannot move: it is immobile, and without motility. Now, despite the animating force exerted by superdynamation in both Jason and the Argonauts and Clash of the Titans, these films are pervaded by images of artefacts: objects (statues, columns, ruins) that have been created, and then abandoned: objects that can be moved, but cannot move. It may be that in these images of the immobile artefact these films present us with the specter of lifelessness, which it is their express purpose to defeat. In this context one cannot help but invoke the figure of Medusa in The Clash of the Titans as the most emblematic of all monsters: for the Medusa, who turns her victims to stone, is the anti-animator par excellence. In a sense Medusa only reveals the stop in all stop-motion animation; this is her very special effect; one that can only be rendered visible, ironically enough, through the deployment of the very animating powers it is her special gift to arrest. And here, too we see the other side of the Oz effect, in which the animating force of film is transferred to the emotional status of the spectator: the move is that which moves; that which transports us to another time and place.[xii] The Medusa suggests that such tropes are defenses against the specter of immobility which is at the basis of all aesthetic experience. Who, after all, is more immobile than a spectator in a movie-theater (unless the reader of a novel, comfortably ensconced in her or her armchair)? And what is more arresting than the moving image? And what is the special effect designed to do, if not astonish us, and make us all children of Medusa?[xiii]
The cosmic chessboard on which Zeus and Hera play with the lives of human beings merely renders this allegory of the artefact explicit; and that this vision is an allegory of cinema itself is made all too clear when we watch the Olympian deities studying their favorite humans in a reflecting pool that resembles a wide-screen television. We might compare this reflecting pool in Jason and the Argonauts to another tele-vision, a device, that is, for viewing from afar: the crystal ball through which the Wicked Witch of the West follows Dorothy’s progress towards the Emerald City. Note that the crystal ball has already made an appearance in the Wizard of Oz as one of Professor Marvel’s carnival props; but this sham version of the crystal ball does more than prefigure the power of the Witch: it reveals that this power, like that of the Wizard, is based on smoke and mirrors, is a matter of special effects. Ahl remarks that, with regard to Jason and the Argonauts and Clash of the Titans, “it is hard to resist the thought that Harryhausen and Schreer are commenting on their own artistic works as well as recreating myth” (53).
If men here are mere artefacts of the gods, and gods mere artefacts of men, it is hard to resist the following conclusion: that both gods and men alike are mere artefacts of the filmmaker himself, as the supreme master of special effects. And thus the full import of the “Wizard” epithet which is now reflexively attached to Harryhausen’s name becomes evident: for Harryhausen is the true divinity of these films, the hidden god behind the screen. In his essay Ahl repeatedly refers to Harryhausen as a “Prometheus” or a “Titan”, as when he comments on the liberties taken with classical myth in films such as Jason and the Argonauts and Clash of the Titans: “After all, the filmmaker is the poet, as fully entitled to fulfill his creative, Promethean role as were his ancient predecessors. Harryhausen himself is the ‘Titan’ of these two films” (56).
But in a discussion of the underlying ethics of Harryhausen’s films Ahl appears to acknowledge that “Wizard” is perhaps the more appropriate appellation: for the Wizard is the true false divinity: no conjurer of primal causes, but simply a manipulator of special effects (and which are no longer so special once their true nature is revealed):
“Why does God, or rather why do the gods, allow us to make evil decisions? And to what extent are we the pawns, or perhaps the puppets, in a larger game orchestrated by an ingenious Harryhausen-like master of special effects? Such thoughts had certainly occurred to Frank Baum when he wrote The Wizard of Oz and to Victor Fleming when he directed its film version in 1939. The Wizard manipulates images but is himself hollow, a magician, a master of illusion for the sake of illusion” (57).
I pause, for a moment longer (and choose my verbs carefully) on the notion of the artefact: for the artefact is more than the created object. It is the object without life, the object as that which does not and cannot move: it is immobile, and without motility. Now despite the animating force exerted by superdynamation in both Jason and the Argonauts and Clash of the Titans, these films are pervaded by images of artefacts: objects (statues, columns, ruins) that have been created, and then abandoned: objects that can be moved, but cannot move. It may be that in these images of the immobile artefact these films present us with the specter of lifelessness which it is their express purpose to defeat. In this context one cannot help but invoke the figure of Medusa in The Clash of the Titans as the most emblematic of all monsters: for the Medusa, who turns her victims to stone, is the anti-animator par excellence. Medusa only reveals the stop in all stop-motion animation; this is her very special effect; one that can only be rendered visible, ironically enough, through the deployment of the very animating powers it is her special gift to arrest.
And here, too we see the other side of the Oz effect, in which the animating force of film is transferred to the emotional status of the spectator: the move is that which moves; that which transports us to another time and place. The Medusa suggests that such tropes are defenses against the specter of immobility which is at the basis of all aesthetic experience. Who, after all, is more immobile than a spectator in a movie-theater? And what is more arresting than the moving image? And what is the special effect designed to do, if not astonish us, and make us all children of Medusa?
Hellenistic Literature: The Art of Special Effects
That Ahl does not shirk at calling Harryhausen a poet (playing on the Greek etymology of the term as a maker, or creator) suggests that literature itself depends on the manipulation of the same, essentially filmic illusions. To a large extent, I would suggest, Hellenistic literature in particular is marked by the (perhaps more calculated) deployment of similar effects. It is a commonplace to distinguish Hellenistic literature and art from its earlier Classical counterparts by a penchant for realism, for “bringing its subject matter to life.”[xiv] Apollonius’ almost clinical representation of the psychopathology of love in the Argonautica; pastoral poet Theocritus’ precise depiction of the everyday life of a shepherd in the Idylls; the sculptor’s lurid portrayal of the death-throes of Laocoon; all are part of this aesthetic of realism, an aesthetic that, we might say, is highly “cinematic.”[xv]
Margarete Bieber’s discussion, in The Sculpture of the Hellenistic Age, of one of the canonical works of Hellenistic sculpture, the Dying Gladiator (or Dying Gaul), emphasizes its success in conveying the illusion of movement: “The attempt to hold the body up while the blood streams from the wound under the right breast, the bitterness expressed in the head which sinks helplessly forward, the eyebrows drawn together in agony – all are deeply moving” (108). Keep in mind that last phrase; for both in terms of its formal properties and its intended effect upon the viewer, Hellenistic art has long been characterized as a moving art: both an art that seems to move, and one that seeks to move its audience.
Those comparing Hellenistic art unfavorably with Classical art argue that in the former this aesthetic of verisimilitude is taken too far; its realism is artificial, a matter merely of effects.[xvi] Hellenistic art, it is said, tries too hard to be too real: the result is bombast: a spectacle meant to showcase the talent of the sculptor rather than the subject sculpted.[xvii] Classical art, it is said, seeks to disguise its artistry: Hellenistic art calls attention to its own virtuosity. That self-referentiality, for many critics, is what gives Hellenistic art its apparent modernity, or even postmodernity.[xviii]
Alexandrian poetry is typically characterized as a poetry that strives for realism. “Realism,” Zanker explains, in Realism in Alexandrian Poetry, “is characterized by its fidelity to what is perceived as nature or reality. As such… it points up the paradox of most mimesis in that it pretends… to present reality, while remaining art” (5-6). This is misleading. Hellenistic literature never “pretends” to “present reality.” It plays at the game of realism – the game of mimesis – while never straying from its primary concern, that of remaining “art.” The density and difficulty of Hellenistic literature, its detailed ekphrases, its clinical psychologizing, its self-conscious archaicizing, its penchant for scholarly aetiologies – all are techniques that work to produce an effect called realism, and to undermine that effect at the same moment, to “lay bare the device,” as the Russian formalists would put it,[xix] and unveil the illusion (just as the Wizard of Oz is unveiled behind his curtain).[xx] In this sense Hellenistic poetry is built almost entirely upon special effects which call attention to themselves as such.
Argonautica: The Triumph of the Techno-Epic
Not surprisingly, the Argonautica is an epic that everywhere flaunts the technique, or technology, of epic itself. It is too ostentatiously good to be really good; it is good because it is bad; as long as badness here is understood as something self-conscious and carefully crafted.
Much of the general effect of the Argonautica, what makes it at once funny and effete, can be explained by a logic of spectacular effects that are designed to call attention to themselves. Consider Argonautica 2.537-40, as the goddess Athena follows the progress of the good ship Argo while perched upon a cloud; in E. V. Rieu’s translation:
‘Argos’ departure did not escape Athene’s eye. She promptly took her stand on a cloud which, though light, could bear her formidable weight, and swept down to the sea.’
The passage is unmistakably Homeric (this studied archaicism is one of Apollonius’ signature traits), and yet is transformed into burlesque through a pedantic show of precision, one that makes no distinction between natural bodies, and divine ones.[xxi] Homeric epic, long before Apollonius, is marked by a vivid “pictorial realism” (the term is Zanker’s, referring to what he sees as the defining feature of Hellenistic poetry), something that already suggests the logic of the cinema. But Apollonius’ realism is hyper-realism; which is difficult to distinguish sometimes from surrealism. The passage above, with its fussy display of concern for verisimilitude, thereby turns “realism” into fantasy, or vaudeville comedy. It is the sheer bravado of the performance itself that matters; and there is no sense that what we are reading is meant to be enjoyed as anything but “literature.”
Or consider “Talôs chalkeios,” “Talos, man of bronze” (in E. V. Rieu’s translation), at Argonautica 4.1638. This is surely one of the most effective examples of superdynamation in Jason and the Argonauts. But already in the Hellenistic epic, this manifestation of the supernatural is different from the epiphany of the divine, or the monstrous, in Homer. Apollonius’ Talos, long before Harryhausen’s, is but a giant animated robot, a veritable wind-up toy, an emblem of immobility set into motion; in R. C. Seaton’s translation:
‘He was of the stock of bronze . . . and . . . the son of Cronos gave him to Europa to be the warder of Crete and to stride round the island thrice a day. Now in all the rest of his body and limbs was he fashioned of bronze and invulnerable.’
Talos in the Argonautica is thus the very figure of dynamation before the fact. He is “brought to life,” in effect, by technology – just as it is technology that destroys him: Medea’s cheap magic spells, which confuse him (“with her hostile glance she bewitched the eyes of Talos . . . and she sent forth baneful phantoms”), and the fragility of his metallic frame. “Life” here is a cheap illusion, something mechanical and fraudulent. It is ichor – the blood of the gods, already familiar from Homer – that animates Talos, that gives him the power to move. However, the “blood-red vein” located “beneath the sinew by his ankle” and “covered by a thin skin” – a clear reference to Achilles weak spot – is the weakness in the design, described with anatomical precision by Apollonius. This is Talos’ on/off switch; and all it takes is a simple misstep, a trivial accident, for the design to come undone:
‘And as he was heaving massy rocks to stay them [the Argonauts] from reaching the haven, he grazed his ankle on a pointed crag: and the ichor gushed forth like melted lead…’ (Seaton)
And so Talos collapses, inert metal once again. In Apollonius’ Talos, ichor is thus no longer the sacred blood of the gods, as it was in Homeric epic, but a form of hydraulic fluid.[xxii]
In Jason and the Argonauts, Talos’ status as technological entity, as oversized automaton, is simply rendered more explicit. The “blood-red vein,” the on/off switch in Apollonius’ Talos, has now become a rusty valve. Harryhausen’s filmic Talos is a mere robot, switched on by the arrival of the Argonauts, and switched off by the physical intervention of Jason (without Medea’s help); all he has to do now is pull the plug. The protracted labor of turning the valve; the sudden effluence of fluid; the immediate paralysis and collapse of the body: all are presented unambiguously as empirical causes linked to empirical effects.
Meanwhile, watching Harryhausen’s Talos in action, it seems clear that what gives this scene its power is a certain mechanistic archaicism: the way technology itself appears embarrassingly visible as it functions to produce certain desired or undesired effects. What is on display here is not the seamless illusion of movement but its performance, even its rehearsal, its labored articulation into discrete and disconnected moves. It is this display of technique that makes the scene both frightening, and laughable.
This technological transparency is the key to much of Apollonius’ success as a poet. Consider, finally, the famous passage at 3.275-84: the precise moment when Medea falls in love with Jason. In its showcasing of its own technique it offers us a perfect instance of the Hellenistic manner:
‘Meanwhile Eros, passing through the clear air, had arrived unseen and bent on mischief, like a gadfly setting out to plague the grazing heifers, the fly that cowherds call the breese. In the porch, under the lintel of the door, he quickly strung his bow and from his quiver took a new arrow, fraught with pain. Still unobserved, he ran across the threshold, glancing around him sharply. Then he crouched low at Jason’s feet, fitted the notch to the middle of the string, and drawing the bow as far as his hands would stretch, shot at Medea. And her heart stood still.’ (Trans. Rieu, my emphasis.)
Passion here is rendered visible; translated, as it were, into action poetry. In essence, Apollonius has taken Homeric battlefield narrative, with its action verbs, and its extended metaphors, and transferred it to the psychological domain.[xxiii] The effect is both self-consciously archaic and pedantic. Apollonius, for example, is shameless in his display of erudition, digressing with a brief lecture on the particular nature of an insect present in the first place only because Apollonius himself has built his Homeric metaphor around it; at the same time, he displays a literary pedigree that both dazzles and dismays, referring back not only to Homer, but to Plato, Euripides, Sappho and Theocritus. There is no need to apologize, as so many critics do, for Apollonius’ pedantry and old-fashionedness, any more than we need to apologize for Harryhausen’s ludicrously outdated special effects. Apollonius’ is a very studied, and therefore very modern archaicism.[xxiv]
R.L. Hunter’s analysis of the passage in his commentary on book 3 of the Argonautica clearly shows how Apollonius’ verse reproduces on the syntactical level the very violence of the action it aims to represent on the narrative plane. Regarding 3.284, the last line of the passage (which in the original reads: “hêk’ epi Mêdeiêi: ten d’amphasiê labe thumon”) Hunter writes: “The monosyllabic verb [hêk’] after a lengthy preparation (278-83) and the central punctuation ‘dividing’ the references to Medea mark the speed and stunning effect of the shot” (129). Which should remind us how superdynamation functions in Jason and the Argonauts: as the effect of movement, but an effect which calls attention to the technical means by which it is manufactured.[xxv]
Jason: Techno-Hero or Pop-Hero
Note that the idea of the Argonautica as a techno-epic, an epic of special effects, explains many aspects of Apollonius’ work that have long vexed its critics and sometimes irritated its readers. It helps, for example, to clarify the whole debate surrounding Jason’s heroism, or rather frustrating lack thereof. Rather than an anti-hero (as G. Lawall) or a romantic hero (as in C. R. Beye), Jason may properly be termed a techno-hero, a hero who relies on special effects, whether those achieved by way of magical drugs, invisible deities, or seductive words. Rose complains that Harryhausen’s spectacular effects turn Jason and the Argonauts into a film that “reinforces the fetishism of mechanical gimmicks as the solution to all problems” (28). But it is precisely by way of mechanical gimmicks – magic drugs or magic words – that Apollonius’ hero, just as much as Harryhausen’s, triumphs. (And the same could be said, one might add, for the Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz. Dorothy’s heroism, after all, is only enabled, we might say, by the interventions of Glinda, the Good Witch of the North; and above all by the ruby slippers she now wears upon her feet. “Curses, curses!” cries the Wicked Witch of the West, “Somebody always helps that girl. Shoes or no shoes, I’m still great enough to conquer her.”)
But this artificial, derivative, technological heroism of Jason’s in the Argonautica also makes him the quintessential pop icon, even before the advent of pop culture. At this point we need to say a few words about the Olympian theology at the basis of film and epic alike. Human freedom in both cases is severely limited by the will of the gods, a will characterized as essentially arbitrary. (Recall the scene on Olympus in Jason and the Argonauts, where Zeus and Hera are represented playing a game of cosmic chess: the board is the world, the pieces human beings.) Thus in both cases we inhabit an intensely stratified world, a world marked, essentially by class warfare, or a quarrel of the ancients and the moderns. It is hardly surprising, then, that in both Jason and the Argonauts and Clash of the Titans gods and heroes are given distinct national identities, played respectively by British and American actors (for in the American collective imagination, the British accent is the indice par excellence of tradition and authority). Both Jason (played by Todd Armstrong) and Perseus (Harry Hamlin) are thus presented as newcomers, vulgar interlopers – in others words, Americans – in the realm of the classical.
Ahl comments on a sequence from Jason and the Argonauts “showing Jason visiting, as a tourist might, a temple with ruined columns and a fallen statue of Hermes. Jason, we realize, belongs to our world and our time. He is a young American tourist in the world of myth, naïve and unsure of himself” (51). Note the image of the fallen statue: for both Jason and the Arguments and Clash of the Titans document a cosmic crisis, one in which the compact between gods and men appears to have been broken: the gods have been forgotten, or seem to have forgotten us. It is the destiny of these young heroes to reinstate the contract, and mend the rift between the human and the divine, or between the present and the past.[xxvi] In the context of their respective films Jason and Perseus are thus the perfect poster children for popular culture itself, which “revives” the classical past even as it rejects it.[xxvii] Of Jason, Ahl writes: “The American who defies tradition is following it even as he denies it. He is a temptor deorum, a ‘despiser of the gods,’ as is Mezentius in Virgil’s Aeneid or Capaneus in Statiıus’ Thebaid. But a despiser of the gods is no atheist” (50). These tourists of the classical world thus help to turn their films into allegories of popular culture itself, and its simultaneous resistance to and reverence for the past.[xxviii]
But all this is already fully visible in the Hellenistic epic. The status of the Argonautica as a post-Homeric epic, and yet which is situated in the pre-Homeric era, turns Jason simultaneously into a perpetual proto-hero, a hero-in-apprentice, and a second-rate-hero, a mere copycat, destined to follow in the footsteps of the true heroes who came before. That the Argonautica, modeled as it is upon the prototype of the Odyssey, takes the form of a journey or a quest, one that continually refers back to Apollonius’ literary predecessors, turns Jason into a mere tourist, visiting the iconic sites of the classical world. Popular culture, as in Knox’s lament of our world of “cultural dilution” and “plastic substitutes,” is necessarily prosthetic culture. Hence Jason’s reliance on technological short-cuts: for Jason, this tourist of the Homeric past, is the first great pop-hero.
Matthew Gumpert is Associate Professor in the Department of Western Languages and Literatures at Bosphorus University, Istanbul, where much of his work focuses on the persistence of classcial culture in the post-classical world.
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[i] Winkler’s introduction to Classics and the Cinema takes the form of an apology for such an exercise, and suggests he and his classical brethren are little interested in film itself as a genre: “Openly commercial films set in antiquity, whose historical and mythological accuracy may leave much to be desired, can still reward a close engagement with their underlying qualities” (Winkler 1991: 10). On criticism as apology, see my discussion of the classical recusatio below.
[ii] Winkler would have us believe the contributors to Classics and Cinema are moving in this direction when he asserts, “We emphasize film’s importance as a form of narrative and apply methods of literary scholarship” (1991: 12); in fact, such an assertion has the effect of eliding the distinction between literature and film and ignoring the specific properties of the latter, the emphasis upon narrative per se suggests that what the classicist is interested, when it comes to film, is the story it tells, rather than the way it tells it.
[iii] A number of critics have been moving in this direction: see Fred Mench’s “Film Sense in the Aeneid” in Winkler (ed.) (2001: 219-32), and J. K. Newman’s essay “Greek Poetics and Eisenstein’s Films” in Winkler (ed.) (1991: 108-15). See also Newman (1986: 85-86, 96-100) on certain filmic aspects in Pindar’s treatment of the Argo myth in Pythian 4.
[iv] Winkler cites (2001: 18n25) Axel Sütterlin’s use of the term Filmphilologie (1996: 173).
[v] In G. M. A Grube’s translation: “compare the effect of education and of the lack of it on our nature to an experience like this: Imagine human beings living in an underground, cavelike dwelling, with an entrance a long way up . . . They’ve been there since childhood, fixed in the same place, with their necks and legs fettered, able to see only in front of them, because their bonds prevent them from turning their heads around. Light is provided by a fire burning far above and behind them. Also behind them, but on higher ground, there is a path stretching between them and the fire. Imagine that along this path a low wall has been built, like the screen in front of puppeteers above which they show their puppets . . . Then also imagine that there are people along the wall, carrying all kinds of artefacts that project above it – statues of people and other animals . . . Do you suppose . . . that these prisoners see anything of themselves and one another besides the shadows that the fire casts on the wall in front of them?” (514a-b).
[vi] “Others,” Winkler points out, “saw the analogy between Plato’s allegory and the cinema long ago”; thus F. M. Cornford in his translation of the Republic (228n2; cited by Winker 2001: 12). But again the point is that this is all it is for Winkler, as for Cornford: an analogy.
[vii] Manohla Dargis’ appraisal of the first Clash of the Titans, in a review of the 2010 remake by the same title, largely conforms to this aesthetic of animation: “The original ‘Clash of the Titans’ is best remembered for the terrifically vivid and detailed creatures created by Ray Harryhausen, the special effects wizard whose stop-motion animations enlivened fantasies like ‘Jason and the Argonauts’ and influenced generations of filmmakers.” Note the use of the epithet wizard.
[viii] Barthes’ famous example in “L’effet de réel” is the following passage from Flaubert’s “Un Coeur simple”: “an old piano supported, underneath a barometer, a pyramidal pile of boxes and cartons” (“un vieux piano supportait, sous un baromètre, un tas pyramidal de boîtes et de cartons”) (179). In “le barometre de Flaubert,” or other apparently superfluous details, “the very absence of the signified to the advantage of the referent alone becomes the signifier itself of realism: the result is a reality effect, the basis of that unacknowledged verisimilitude which forms the aesthetic of all the typical works of modernity” (186-87).
[ix] Critical assessments of the special effects used in Hollywood treatments of classical themes remain strictly tied to the principle of verisimilitude, or realism. For a special effect to be successful, it follows necessarily, it must not look like a special effect: it must look “real.” Vincent Canby panned the original Clash of the Titans largely because Harryhausen’s special effects failed to disguise themselves as such: “The film is principally concerned with its cataclysms and its monsters – animated puppets – which are less convincing than interesting as examples of the real cinema art of special effects… ‘Clash of the Titans’… includes a lot of quite vividly photographed slashings, impalements and, of course, the beheading of Medusa, none very realistic though bloody.” The advent of CGI does not alter this critical optic; on the contrary, it reinforces the expectation that representations look absolutely “real.” And when they don’t, the critic tends not to like what he sees. Which explains Elvis Mitchell’s criticism of Ridley Scott’s Gladiator (2000) in his review in The New York Times: “Mr. Scott’s inhuman, glossy style is fey and terse: postcards from Olympus. At least that’s where ‘Gladiator’ seems to take place – there or some other mythical era, since the Roman Colosseum is roughly the size of the Death Star from ‘Star Wars,’ thanks to the magic of computer graphics.”
[x] The more recent 300 (2006), a filmic treatment of the Battle of Thermopylae, based on Frank Miller’s celebrated graphic novel, was widely panned both for being too realistic (in its rendering of violence and gore), and not realistic enough (in its departure from the historical sources); see, for example, A. O. Scott’s review in The New York Times (“Battle of the Manly Men”). But the critics were wrong on both counts, and precisely for basing their judgments, in both cases, upon the standard of verisimilitude. 300 is, I believe, by far the most effective filmic treatment of a classical theme in the era of CGI, and precisely to the extent that it departs from verisimilitude. The key to 300’s success is its fidelity to the aesthetic of the graphic novel; bodies in 300 are cartoon bodies, and the blood they shed is cartoon blood. But what is the graphic novel but the contemporary form of the classical frieze: dynamic movement and dramatic narrative achieved by way of successive frames containing stylized figures? The digitally enhanced bodies of 300, rendered instantly antique by way of color scheme that hovers between copper and dried blood, resemble nothing so much as classical sculpture, set in motion – without ever losing their formal and archaic characteristics. “In time,” Scott opines, “‘300’ may find its cultural niche as an object of camp derision, like the sword-and-sandals epics of an earlier pre-computer-generated-imagery age.” But 300’s comic book aesthetic, like the Argonautica’s satirical remake of Homer, makes a virtue out of camp aesthetics; unlike earnest epics like Troy, or the 2010 remake of Clash of the Titans, which are examples of unintentional camp. The problem, in any case, is not CGI, but the way CGI has become a mere slave of the reality effect. Scott appears persuaded, on the other hand, by the sheer size of the blockbuster Troy (2004) which, he argues (“FILM REVIEW; Greeks Bearing Immortality”) is more faithful to its classical sources: “But for what it is – a big, expensive, occasionally campy action movie full of well-known actors speaking in well-rounded accents, – ‘Troy’ is not bad. It has the blocky, earnest integrity of a classic comic book, and it labors to respect the strangeness and grandeur of its classical sources.” Grandeur, perhaps; strangeness, no. For there is nothing strange about Troy, which only strives to match Homer in size, not nature. (Even here it fails, for in trying to do too much, Troy ends up doing too little. Already in chapter 8 of the Poetics Aristotle praises Homer for dedicating the Iliad, which begins in medias res, to a unified and coherent story, as opposed to those poets who, in attempting to narrate the whole story, end up narrating three or four stories with no internal unity [1451a15-35]; Wolfgang Petersen makes precisely the same mistake.) (Note, too, that in this return to the epic scale of the early sword-and-sandals epics there is a reversal of the traditional recusatio – that formal gesture, and familiar motif in classical poetry – by which the post-Homeric poet recuses himself from the epic genre, and justifies the aesthetic of quality over quantity. For a more detailed discussion of recusatio, see n24 below.) Epic here is a purely quantitative, as opposed to qualitative notion: it strives to make Homer real, not the real Homeric. Thus Troy may be “blocky,” and it is nothing if not “earnest,” but it utterly lacks the integrity, not to mention the formal properties, of a comic book.
[xi] “Hollywood,” Ahl asserts, “has traditionally shied away from substantial treatment of gods in whatever form” (40). This circumspection may be a function of a post-classical, Judeo-Christian theology; but the fact is it is only when special effects became available that Hollywood directors set about representing the gods substantially: speaking in metaphysical terms, that is, as substance.
[xii] The Medusa makes a rather effective appearance in the recent Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief (2010). It is ironic, but not surprising, that in a film that relies for its effects on what most of us will now feel to be rather run-of-the-mill computer-generated imagery, Medusa (thanks, perhaps, to Uma Thurman) is the most compelling character.
[xiii] The Medusa effect is present in the earliest and most influential formulations of the mimetic scenario. Remember the immobilized troglodytes of Plato’s cave, “fixed in the same place, with their necks and legs fettered, able to see only in front of them, because their bonds prevent them from turning their heads around” (Republic 7.514a; trans. G. M. A. Grube).
[xiv] Note that throughout this essay I employ the lower-case “classical” to refer to the pre-Christian Greco-Roman in general, while the upper-case “Classical” designates a particular historical period of Greek culture, as distinct from the Archaic (within which the origins of Homeric epic are situated), and the Hellenistic.
[xv] G. Zanker speaks of “pictorial realism” as a distinctive feature of Hellenistic poetry (67). There is a larger sense, of course, in which all poetry seeks to produce visual effects (as, most obviously, in any poetic “image” or conceit”). But Greek writers were particularly interested, and long before the Alexandrian poets, in literature’s visual effects. It remains to explore the proto-cinematic elements of pre-cinematic writing. Newman, in “Greek Poetics and Eisenstein’s Films” cites Simonides’ description of poetry as a “painting that speaks,” and suggests that in an essay on film that phrase may be paraphrased, “painting with a sound track” (Winkler 113).
[xvi] For Rhys Carpenter the naturalism of the Dying Gladiator embodies the late third-century move towards a form of mimesis unsupported by classical form; here: “barely a trace of the traditional formal anatomy of the classic canon survives . . . Accurate reproduction of the epidermous patterns and texture has displaced the formalized delineation of subcutaneous muscle structure” (196-98). In other words, Hellenistic mimesis looks more real, but it is illusory or empty – like Apollonius’ Talos.
[xvii] The epigram in the Greek Anthology dedicated to the sculpture of a heifer by Myron of Eleutherai is typical in its emphasis upon the genius of the artist: “O bull, in vain do you nudge this heifer. For it is lifeless / Myron, the cow-sculptor, has deceived you” (Anth. Graec. 1.249.18, Palat. 734, cited in Pollitt 63). Myron’s mimesis here is both magical, and deceptive.
[xviii] On the formal properties distinguishing Classical and Hellenistic sculpture, see also Andrew Stewart’s Greek Sculpture (2000), Nigel J. Spivey’s Understanding Greek Sculpture: Ancient Meanings, Modern Readings (1997), and Bernard Ashmole’s Architect and Sculptor in Classical Greece (1972).
[xix] “Laying bare the device,” or “obnazhenie priema,” was a term widely used by the Russian formalists to denote self-referentiality in literature.
[xx] G. Arnott, in “Herodas and the Kitchen Sink,” speaks of the detailed “observations of real-life conventions” in Herodas’ Mimbiamboi, but notes they are cast in a deliberately unrealistic language.” This tension between content and form is typical of Hellenistic poetry, and is everywhere present in the Argonautica.
[xxi] R. L. Hunter speaks of Apollonius’ “educated bookishness” (131, 180); and yet, I would argue, there is always a wry and parodic aspect to its display.
[xxii] In fact there is already considerable ambiguity as to the nature of this substance in Homer, where it is already something simultaneously sacrosanct and physiological. Ichor makes its most famous appearance in the wounding of Aphrodite by Diomedes, and Aphrodite’s subsequent retreat to the protection of Olympos and the arms of her mother Dione, in Iliad 2.330-417. The crucial moment in the course of the Diomedia is worth quoting at length: “and he swung the pitiless bronze at the lady of Kypros, / knowing her for a god without warcraft . . . Now, as following her thought the thick crowd, he caught her, / Lunging in his charge far forward the son of high-hearted / Tydeus made a thrust against the soft hand with the bronze spear, / and the spear tore the skin driven clean on through the immortal / robe that the very Graces had woven for her carefully, / over the palm’s base; and blood immortal flowed from the goddess, / ichor, that which runs in the veins of the blessed divinities; / since these eat no food, nor do they drink of the shining / wine, and therefore they have no blood and are called immortal ” (2.330-42; trans. Lattimore). That it makes its appearance at all (hence the insistence on the successive penetration of divine epidermal layers, both immortal robe and skin) is a violation of the sanctity of the divine body, and a mark of its sacred status (indeed, it is the very distinguishing feature of the divine); and yet that Homer insists on analyzing this substance and explicating its aetiology reduces its status, and renders it merely mechanical. Note that in late classical/early Christian writings, the very presence of ichor in the pagan text is the mark of idolatry: the misguided effort to humanize the divine: ichor becomes a degraded form of blood, indice of a degraded theology. Thus the reference to ichor, and its false etymology, in Clement of Alexandria’s Exhortation to the Greeks: “As a natural consequence, these amorous and passionate gods of yours are brought before us as subject to every sort of human emotion . . . If there are wounds there is also blood; for the ‘ichor’ of the poets is a more disgusting thing even than blood, the word ichor meaning putrefaction of the blood” (2; trans. Butterworth).
[xxiii] The ostentatious rejection of one genre in favor of another, or recusatio, is a strategic move much favored by the post-Homeric poet: thus Sappho fr. 16 L.-P., Thucydides 1.22.4, and Callimachus’ Aetia. For a study of the device see William H. Race, “‘Odes’ 1.20: An Horatian ‘Recusatio’”: “In broadest terms, a recusatio dramatizes a writer’s choice of his theme or his manner of treating it. He poses the options available to him and then ‘rejects’ some as inappropriate”; thus the poet “must console the reader for what he has excluded: hence the apologetic tone of all recusationes” (180). Race suggests that the Hellenistic recusatio has certain distinguishing features: “With the Hellenistic age . . . the form of the recusatio . . . became specialized to deal with the stylistic preoccupations of the age. The prologue to Callimchus’ Aetia and the epilogue to his Hymn to Apollo fixed the contrast between the genus grande and the genus tenue as basically one of quantitas as opposed to qualitas” (180). Homer long ago staked out the epic genre; the Hellenistic poet will devote himself to the lyric mode: to quality, not quantity. To some extent, I am arguing here, the Hollywood film that takes up the classical theme must pose as an apology for its very treatment of that theme: it is the performance of a recusatio in the Hellenistic mode. The gesture of the classicist who apologizes for attending to classical cinema, instead of classical poetry, suggests criticism as recusatio.
[xxiv] Many critics speak of a debate between “traditionalists” and “innovators” in the Alexandria of Apollonius’ time. Peter Green, in the introduction to his translation of the Argonautica, sees Callimachus, who advocates a lyric mode that departs from Homeric narrative, as the leader of the innovators, and Apollonius, who attempts an old-style epic in the Homeric mode, as a traditionalist. Green suggests that the “innovators” or “modernists” would have been found Apollonius’ monsters artificial and ridiculous. Against this view let me cite J. Clauss, from his review of Green’s translation: “The Apollonius I read is not a poet whose voice evinces a naïve belief in the events he recounts, but an artist whose poetic vision was strongly influenced by a scholar’s need for and even delight in, impeccably researched production.” I couldn’t agree more.
[xxv] Ovid, again, will bring this technique of poetic superdynamation to perfection in the Metamorphoses. See, for example, the stunning transformation of Daphne, pursued by Apollo, at Metamorphoses 1.434-581. Note that, as in the case of Medusa, or Talos, special effects are here employed to suggest the cessation of movement. Here is the moment of Daphne’s transformation, accomplished by means of a prayer to her father, the river-god Peneus: ‘Help me, dear father; if the river-gods / have any power, then transform, dissolve / my gracious shape, the form that pleased too well!’ / As soon as she is finished with her prayer, / a heavy numbness grips her limbs; thin bark / begins to gird her tender frame, her hair / is changed to leaves, her arms to boughs; her feet – / so keen to race before – are now held fast / by sluggish roots; the girl’s head vanishes, / becoming a treetop. All that is left / of Daphne is her radiance” (1.23-24; trans. Mandelbaum).
[xxvi] The same cannot be said for the eponymous hero of the recent Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief (2010), despite the fact that it is the earnest tale of an archetypal teenager who discovers he is a demigod, the son of Poseidon, and whose considerable powers are “brought to life,” to use the standard animatory trope, by the latest computer-generated imagery. Percy receives a tedious education in classical mythology from a wheel-chair-bound Pierce Brosna speaking, of course, in rounded Shakespearean tones, in the hallowed and dimly-lit space of the museum, amidst a host of marble statues – or what appear to be plaster casts thereof (a sign, in itself, surely, of the pale simulacrum of classical myth this film dimly aspires to be) of gods and heroes. No amount of computer-generated imagery succeeds in resuscitating these statues or bringing the classical past to life: not even the sight of Pierce Brosnan, in the next scene, liberated from his armchair, revealed as the centaur Chiron, fabled tutor, in classical lore, to Achilles and other heroes. Indeed, the more CGI tries to bring it to life, the more the classical past in this film remains bound to a wheelchair, or fixed to a pedestal: an immobile body gathering dust. The very ubiquitousness of these so-called special effects ensures that they no longer appear to be special. In his review of Percy Jackson in The New York Times, Stephen Holden writes: “For all the earth shaking that goes on, ‘Percy Jackson’ is agreeably tame and unthreatening. The movie’s generic CGI monsters represent no technological advance. Such creatures are so prolific nowadays that even this movie’s hounds of hell elicit a ho-hum response. Maybe the advent of the 3-D era can help restore the scare factor.” But surely the problem is not technological innovation; nor 3-D the solution. Surely the problem is too much verisimilitude, not too little.
[xxvii] That the classical past can or must be “revived” is predicated on the trope of the classical past as a body trapped in suspended animation: neither living nor dead. The trope remains almost reflexive: critics don’t appear to be aware they are under its spell. Thus B. L. Ullman, cited by Winkler in the introduction to Classical Myth and Culture in the Cinema: “Moving pictures are excellent means of showing that the classics are not dead” (Winkler 2001: 5).
[xxviii] Hollywood heroes such as Jason and Perseus also suggest, once again, a return to the logic of the Hellenistic recusatio, already discussed in this essay (see n11 and n24 above): for, whether they have arrived too early on the scene, or too late, these heroes are no longer seem to be competing with their Homeric predecessors: they have recused themselves from the epic arena: their heroism is a matter of particular, idiosyncratic qualities.