Thursday, 17 April 2014

Game of Thrones: The Lion and the Rose


I have just managed to see 'The Lion and the Rose', as I was away at the CA conference this week (and I noticed that I saw the major event revealed in at least two places online without me looking for anything Game of Thrones-related - luckily I'm a book reader so I knew what was going to happen in this episode anyway, but to avoid spoilers you really do have to avoid the internet sometimes don't you?!). I had originally been down to review this episode for Doux Reviews but had to rearrange due to the conference - just my luck! Anyway, all of this preamble is here to provide a nice big chunk of text as a spoiler-free safety net for anyone behind on Game of Thrones and the books its based on, and any TV fans who haven't read the books - spoilers lie ahead so stop reading now if you haven't read all of the books and seen up to season four, episode two.

Just to reiterate (and provide plenty of space before the spoilers come) - I will be spoiling all the books up to A Dance With Dragons and presumably upcoming episodes of the TV show. You have been warned.

There are plenty of excellent reviews of this episode out there so I won't go into great detail on the episode in general other than to say I was impressed with how tense the whole wedding sequence was despite the fact I knew exactly what was going to happen. I also loved all the little conversations going on through the wedding, with Jaime's 'oh crap' face when he sees Brienne and Cersei talking to each other being a particular highlight (and Cersei has a point about Brienne's ability to change sides). My least favourite aspects of the episode were Tyrion and Shae, whose story has been my least favourite aspect of the show for a while now and if the show follows the books, will actually be my least favourite thing about the entire series, so that's nothing new.

The reason I'm blogging it, however, is not to make up for missing out on reviewing it (oddly enough I quite enjoyed reviewing the premiere, even though it was much less exciting). What caught my eye Classics-wise was what looked to me like a couple of nice directorial references to I, Claudius.

As I mentioned when I looked at season one, blurbs on the Song of Ice and Fire books often compare the series to Suetonius' Twelve Caesars. I often have a sneaking suspicion that what they're really reminded of isn't so much Suetonius himself (though most of the lurid bits and pieces do come from his gossipy biographies) but Robert Graves' I, Claudius and especially the TV series based on it, which draw on Suetonius, Tacitus, a bit of Cassius Dio and, in the TV version, one spectacularly gory bit of pure invention. Martin certainly references it in the one tiny bit of background we have on the late Joanna Lannister - that Tywin ruled the kingdoms, but Joanna ruled Tywin ('Augustus ruled the world, but Livia ruled Augustus'). Whether that comparison is significant or not remains to be seen.

It's hardly surprising, then, that we see echoes of I, Claudius reverberating through an episode focused on the murder-by-poison of a king at a feast. According to the Roman mindset, poison was a woman's weapon. It is also a method of murder that in the days before forensic pathologists could look conveniently like a natural death - or, from the point of view of a gossipy historian or inventive author of historical fiction, allows for the re-casting of a natural death as a murder (Exhibit A: Augustus' natural death re-figured as Livia poisoning him with figs). It's hardly surprising that it features prominently in I, Claudius, a story which takes Tacitus' snide implications about Livia and really runs with them.

This episode of Game of Thrones, too, focuses heavily on women as the prime suspects in a royal poisoning. There are, of course, male suspects as well - Dontos, who ushers Sansa away; Loras, who storms off in a huff shortly before it all goes pear-shaped, and obviously Tyrion, the possibility of whose guilt the series has so far left open (the book tells this section from his point of view, so we know it wasn't him - though to be fair I've read detective stories in the past that have cleverly concealed the fact he narrator did it until the end). Frankly, I wouldn't even put it past Tywin, who has another grandson and is fed up of Joffrey, who's clearly a liability. Prime suspects, though, are Sansa, for obvious reasons, Margaery, whose acting skills are crumbling in the face of Joffrey's insanity (the character's acting skills that is - Natalie Dormer is excellent as ever) and Margaery's caring grandmother, Olenna Tyrell (we can probably discount Cersei, and Brienne would just have chopped his head off).

It's in the moments focused on Margaery that the I, Claudius references creep in. Desperate to distract Joffrey from tormenting people, she cries out 'Look! The pie!' with a level of excitement comparable to Augustus' daughter Julia spying cake (though in Julia's case she genuinely just wanted the cake) but the clue that it might be I, Claudius the director or writer is thinking of comes when she and Joffrey start eating the pie. She picks a piece off her own plate and feeds it to him from her fork - which is exactly the way the emperor Claudius is killed by his wife/niece Agrippinilla in I, Claudius (historically Agrippina the Younger). Agrippina supposedly poisoned a mushroom of her own and carefully fed it to her husband in order to get around his food tasters (I bet Jaime's wishing he'd thought of that right now, instead of fussing about where everyone was going to stand).

Now of course, book readers know that the deed was done by the process of Dontos, ordered by Littlefinger, giving Sansa poison to wear (here a necklace, in the book a hairnet) which Olenna then takes and sneaks into Joffrey's cup, making Littlefinger, Dontos, Sansa and Olenna all culpable, though Sansa doesn't appear to have known anything about it. It looks like the show is following the book in that, as it's while Olenna fiddles with Sansa's necklace (nabbing the poison) that she talks about how awful it is to kill a man at a wedding, sympathising with her over Robb's demise - there's no dramatic irony like really heavy-handed and unsubtle dramatic irony.

However, one of the big issues that's as yet unresolved in the books is whether Margaery knew about it. Olenna does it for Margaery - politically, she probably should have waited until Margaery and Joffrey had a child, preferably a son, before offing him, but she couldn't bear to let Margaery suffer being married to the little creep. But did Margaery know? Is she acting when she looks shocked and horrifed, or was she kept in the dark? We'll have to wait until Martin writes some more books and/or the series fills us in, but that visual reference is an interesting one - it certainly suggests to me that Margaery is in on it and as much a part of the poison plan as Olenna - it will be interesting to see how she reacts over the next few episodes.

More Game of Thrones thoughts

Friday, 11 April 2014

The Eagle of the Ninth (by Rosemary Sutcliff)


Rosemary Sutcliff explained the dual inspiration for her classic children's novel in the Foreward; the apparent mysterious disappearance of the Ninth Legion (which may not have been a disappearance at all) and the discovery of a wingless bronze eagle at Silchester, which Sutcliff described as a 'Roman Eagle', presumably believing it to be from the standard of the Roman Legion (it isn't, it's the wrong shape - as Reading museum explain). The fact that neither of the 'facts' the story was based on are, as it turns out, true is rather beside the point, as Sutcliff uses them to tell a classic historical children's adventure story featuring several scenes and themes I recognise from reading adventure and fantasy stories from the same period as a child, including secret paths through bogs, wild chases on horseback, mist in the mountains and extremely devoted pets.

I have to confess, I struggled a bit to get through this book, but I think that may be my own fault for seeing Kevin Macdonald's 2011 film adaptation The Eagle first. Throughout much of the story, despite dramatic changes in tone and theme, the actual plot of the movie follows the book fairly closely - it's only towards the end that the plot itself starts to diverge, and I found those latter sections easier and more enjoyable to read. Although the book includes some beautiful descriptions of the landscape, both in England and Scotland, it is fairly plot-centric, fast-paced and with enough characterisation to keep things interesting, but not as much depth or detail as some children's books, so I think those parts where I knew the story felt like a bit more of a slog for that reason.

While the plot may be superficially similar (up to the point where everyone starts killing each other - after the first battle, no one actually dies during the rest of the novel, except in flashback), the tone of the film and book, and especially Marcus and Esca's relationship, is markedly different. What first attracts Marcus to Esca in the book is not his defiance so much as his fear, which inspires some fellow feeling in him, and Book!Marcus frees Esca before they set off on their quest for the Eagle, so Esca comes and risks his life of his own free will (his duty to serve Marcus as his freedman is mentioned when they return, but Marcus makes it clear he does not want Esca to come unwillingly when they leave for the north). After some initial friction, the relationship between the two is so close that frankly it became almost dull and Esca's devotion seemed a tad extreme - but perhaps I'm just getting old and cynical. I never thought that about Frodo and Sam when I was a child. And Marcus did save his life, after all.

The book also presents a more grounded view than the film of the lands north of Hadrian's Wall and of Britain and the Britons in general. The existence of the Antonine Wall is acknowledged, and one set-piece takes place in an abandoned Roman watch-tower between the two, in what was briefly a Roman province. Although the various British tribes have their own cultures and ways, there is much more emphasis on all humankind's similarities. The tragedy of the rebellion that wounds Marcus is that he and the doomed leader were friends, similar men with similar interests who ended up on opposite sides. When Marcus and Esca travel north, they do so in disguise, since they know Romans won't be welcomed, and they spend time with the tribe who have taken the Eagle and get to know them (there seems to be one language called 'British' that Marcus is remarkably good at speaking, but we'll let that go).

Marcus is initiated in the cult of Mithras. Mithraism is very useful to authors for a couple of reasons. It shares several superficial similarities with Christianity, in some cases because Christianity co-opted elements of Mithraism. Mithras was a sun-god and the religion is also associated with the Moon. Although originating in Iran, the cult was especially popular in the Latin West of the empire and among soldiers. The focal part of Mithras' myth involved killing a bull and a fresco in a Mithraeum at Santa Prisca reads 'you saved us with the shed blood' (probably the bull's blood). There was probably some kind of Mithraic festival around the winter solstice as well, given that he was a sun-god. But most usefully of all for authors of fiction - we actually know very little about the cult, because it was a secretive mystery cult, only known to initiates, who were forbidden to write anything about it down. Nearly all the evidence for the cult is archaeological, and not heavy on text, so we're interpreting images without context as best we can. That's a goldmine for authors, who can pretty much make up whatever they want and claim it's historically plausible.

It's perhaps not surprising, then, to find Marcus following a heavily Christianised form of Mithraism (and hardly ever referring to the other gods, always praying to Mithras). The language he uses to pray is that of the King James Bible, using archaic 'thees' and 'thous' and saying things like 'O God of the Legions... send down thy light upon us.' Logical enough for a sun-god, but clearly Christianised. There's a tension between referring obliquely to the exotic Roman mystery cult and its mysterious initiation ceremonies, and presenting that religion to 1950s child readers (presumed Christian, or having had a Christian upbringing anyway) as something familiar and identifiable.

Although I found it a little slow going at times (despite the fairly fast-paced plot) I enjoyed this book, and I'm sure I'll go on to read the others in the series. Although many of the characters are fairly lightly sketched, they're all likeable, and there's even a female character in there, which is nice, even if she doesn't get to join in the adventure. There's a dry humour throughout the book too, and the setting and landscape are richly drawn. I wish I could love it as much as I know many of my colleagues do, but I think that just comes down to when you read it. Much of the book reminded me of Narnia and The Lord of the Rings, right down to the sound of horns and trumpets heralding the arrival of the cavalry or a desperate chase on horseback through dangerous terrain. I suspect if I'd read it as a child, and without seeing the movie, I would have loved it as much as I know many others do.

Thursday, 3 April 2014

Oedipal themes in Angel: the Series


There's something inherently Oedipal about modern romantic vampire mythology. When Byron's friend Polidori wrote about a sexy, beautiful 'vampyre' who preys on the protagonist's sister, he paved the way for later stories to depict vampirism as a metaphor for lust and the act of a vampire biting a victim as a metaphor for sex. Once the concept of the vampire sire had been developed, what you end up with in several modern vampire mythologies is a depiction of vampire 'families' consisting of 'parents' (the sire or sires) and 'children' (the vampires they've sired) in which the 'family' has been created by a process of the 'parent' having metaphorical sex with the 'child' (often accompanied by literal sex). The entire set-up revolves around the idea that the 'child' and 'parent' are sexually attracted to each other.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel play up this theme even more than many modern romantic vampire series, partly thanks to the presence of Drusilla in Angel's vampire 'family'. Drusilla's madness is depicted largely as making her child-like, fond of dolls and parties (and, er, children), so while Spike refers to the sire/offspring relationship as 'you were my Yoda' early on, implying more of a teacher/protegee relationship, Drusilla always comes across as the child in a twisted 'family'. She also refers to herself and the others that way more than most, explicitly calling Angelus 'Daddy' while cheating on Spike (later revealed to be her 'son' rather than, as initially implied, her 'brother') with him.

Later, when Drusilla appears on Angel to re-sire Angel's now human 'mother' Darla, Gunn again makes the relationship explicit by commenting on how weird it is that Darla's 'grand-daughter' is becoming her 'mother'. Meanwhile Drusilla buries Darla in a flower nursery, just to really drive home the mother/daughter point, before they embark on a killing spree so full of sexual tension between the two of them it's hardly surprising when a later flashback in season five reveals they have had a sexual relationship at least once, when they had a threesome with the Immortal. With season five also implying pretty strongly that Angel and Spike have got it together at least once, the whole 'family' is more twisted and incestuous than anything seen on HBO.

Angel, however, was not satisfied with the just the bog-standard Oedipal vampire 'family' - the show played with Oedipus complexes all over the place. Back on Buffy, Spike's relationship with his biological mother took vampiric Oedipal issues one step further when, as Giles would say, the subtext became the text and his newly sired mother (sired by Spike himself, making him 'lover', 'son' and 'father' all at once already) actually tried to come on to him, at which point he staked her (i.e. he shoved his hard pointy stick into her, which does not improve the situation, in Freudian terms). After Spike's move to Angel, Wesley re-enacts the other, less sexy, part of the Oedipus complex when he kills what he thinks is his father to save Fred; Spike's attempts to sympathise by telling him about his mum do not go down well.

The mother (hah!) of all Oedipus complexes on Angel, though, is only tangentially related to vampirism, though it does involve alternate dimensions and creepy god-like beings. When Darla kills herself to save her and Angel's son Connor, the baby is cared for by everyone at Angel Investigations including Cordelia, in whom Angel is clearly romantically interested. To cut a long story short, Connor ends up growing up in a demon dimension and coming back as a petulant teen, Cordelia gets possessed by an evil god-like thing, and they end up having sex so that the thing that made sure Connor was born in the first place can give birth to itself through Cordelia. Connor turns out to be impervious to the adoration his daughter Jasmine induces in everyone else, but Angel isn't, and ends up worshipping the ground his own grand-daughter walks on for a while, until Fred 'cures' him and Jasmine is eventually killed by her father, Connor.

Connor doesn't know about Cordelia being possessed by Jasmine at the time they have sex, but he does know how close Cordelia and his father - whom he makes several different attempts to kill - are, and that she looked after him as a baby. Eventually, Oedipus Rex finally gets a proper shout-out when the temporarily-returned Angelus tells Connor 'I mean, when you think about it, the first woman you boned is the closest thing you've ever had to a mother. Doing your mom and trying to kill your dad. There should be a play.'

Angel's interest in the Oedipus complex, then, seems to go a bit beyond the Oedipal themes that inevitably come up in romanticised vampire fiction. That's partly because, unlike many pop culture references to the Oedipus complex which focus only on the enticingly taboo wanting-to-have-sex-with-your-mother part, Angel is equally interested in the wanting-to-kill-your-father part (and of course, when Drusilla sires Darla she is both having metaphorical sex with and literally killing her 'grand-mother'). Because Angel is all about brooding and feeling guilty over past crimes, past relationships and bad decisions, it's just as interested in ruined and destructive relationships as it is in overly-close ones.

All these Oedipal issues may also be a simple result of taking common TV themes one step further than usual, in the heightened reality of the fantasy setting. Many modern TV shows represent a group of unrelated characters forming an ad hoc 'family' in the absence (for whatever reason) of their actual relatives, and friendship is depicted as 'family' in everything from Sex and the City to Community ('When you guys first came in, we were as wholesome as the family in The Brady Bunch. Now we're as dysfunctional and incestuous as the cast of The Brady Bunch'). TV shows also tend to pair off the characters in small casts to create romantic and sexual tension, so perhaps, once Angel's almost-grown-up son was thrown into the mix, Oedipal issues became inevitable even without the vampiric background. All the same, the sheer variety of Oedipal issues floating around on Angel are notable, and it certainly confirms the capacity for vampire fiction to deal with taboo subjects through metaphor in a much more explicit way than most non-cable prime-time American TV shows.

More Buffyverse posts

Friday, 14 March 2014

Mean Girls (dir. Mark Waters, 2004)


I finally got around to watching Mean Girls this week, when one of my lovely best friends lent it to me. I'm pretty sure I knew almost the first third of the movie line by line already just from internet memes - having now seen both this and Anchorman, I feel I understand about 75% more of Tumblr.

I have conflicted feelings about high school films. Not only did I not attend an American high school, for obvious reasons, the British high schools (we moved) that I attended were seriously weird and are never represented in popular culture. See, not only did I not go to a normal co-ed comprehensive, I didn't go to a fancy private school either. I went to (two different) all-girls grammar schools, a type of school that only exists in a few counties in the UK (had we stayed in Suffolk I'd have gone somewhere much more normal). We got all the emotional stunting of an education without boys with none of the privileges of wealth - since the second one was in Rugby (which also contains one of the poshest schools in the country) we spent our entire time in the shadow of the rich kids telling people 'no, not that one, Rugby High School. It's a very different thing'.

The point is, I don't know the first thing about normal high schools, especially not American ones. But it does seem that everywhere you go, at whatever age, people tend to form into cliques, and sometimes those cliques have leaders, and sometimes it all descends into horrifying levels of back-stabbing and meanness. Which is why I especially enjoyed this brief outburst from the middle of the movie. Mean girl Gretchen has been insulted by queen bee Regina (I didn't say the symbolism was subtle) and finally cracks while studying Shakespeare's Julius Caesar in English class:

Gretchen: Why should Caesar just get to stomp around like a giant while the rest of us try not to get smushed under his big feet? Brutus is just as cute as Caesar, right? Brutus is just as smart as Caesar, people totally like Brutus just as much as they like Caesar, and when did it become okay for one person to be the boss of everybody because that's not what Rome is about! We should totally just STAB CAESAR!

It's something of a more on the nose, less poetic version of Cassius' famous speech from the play:

Cassius:
Why, man, he doth bestride the narrow world
Like a Colossus, and we petty men
Walk under his huge legs and peep about
To find ourselves dishonourable graves.
Men at some time are masters of their fates:
The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves, that we are underlings.
Brutus and Caesar: what should be in that 'Caesar'?
Why should that name be sounded more than yours?
Write them together, yours is as fair a name;
Sound them, it doth become the mouth as well;
Weigh them, it is as heavy; conjure with 'em,
Brutus will start a spirit as soon as Caesar.
Now, in the names of all the gods at once,
Upon what meat doth this our Caesar feed,
That he is grown so great? Age, thou art shamed!
Rome, thou hast lost the breed of noble bloods!

Of course, the reason Shakespeare has lasted so well, aside from the poetry, is that he boils complicated stories down to represent universal truths. As historians, we tend to view historical situations as rather more complex than that. But people are still people in the end, so with it being the Ides of March tomorrow, I am choosing to be amused by the mental image of Caesar, Brutus, Cassius and the rest as catty American high school girls who wear pink on Wednesdays. It might be closer to the truth than we think.

Sunday, 9 March 2014

300: Rise of an Empire (dir. Noam Murro, 2014)


Brother and I went to see this in IMAX this afternoon, which was fun - the IMAX adds to the spectacle a bit and since these movies are essentially nothing but spectacle, it works quite well. I had been a bit worried about dragging an innocent party to this film as both reviews and reactions from friends on Facebook suggested that while 300 was silly but fun, this new parallelaquel (it takes place before, during and after the first film) was simply dull. However, I actually enjoyed myself quite a lot. Somewhere around the point where Xerxes became a Goa'uld at the beginning (it involved a glowy pond in a cave and a cameo from a 'hermit' who looked like Gollum) I got the giggles and I could barely stop laughing for the rest of the film, though I doubt this was the effect the director was going for. I hope I didn't spoil anyone else's enjoyment as I chortled silently the entire way through...

Unsurprisingly, this film's relationship to actual Greek history is foggy at best. I won't pick apart every single inaccuracy as we'd be here all day, so I'll just go over some of the highlights. Xerxes' father Darius did indeed try to invade ten years earlier and was defeated at the Battle of Marathon, which was indeed fought by the Athenians against the Persians. Darius' reasons for doing this were long and complicated and involved an escalating series of events kicked off by an ambitious puppet tyrant and involving a 9-year-old Gorgo advising her father (a Spartan king) to stay out of it and everyone burning each others' shrines and temples until both sides felt fully justified in going to war against the other. The Athenians fought Darius off at Marathon lead by one of their generals, Miltiades (not Themistocles) and using better armour, longer spears and a pincer movement, the Spartans turning up at the end to survey the corpses, because thanks to the fact they seem to be eternally celebrating the festival of Karneia, the Spartans tended to be late to every war during this period.* Darius was not killed during this battle, but died four years later, in Persia.

*There are important historical reasons for their reluctance actually to fight with their greatest land army in all Greece, mostly involving the risk of the enslaved Messenian population - the helots - revolting while they were away, which was the helots' favourite thing to do.

Xerxes succeeded his father and started building an invasion fleet. So Themistocles persuaded the Athenians, who had the best navy in Greece, to build more ships. When Xerxes sent his heralds demanding 'earth and water' in 481 and the Athenians chucked one into a pit, the Spartans another into a well, a group of 31 city-states met in Athens and formed the Hellenic League, under Spartan leadership. This is where the 300 come in; while the rest of Sparta celebrated the Karneia again, Leonidas, 300 Spartan male citizens and a heck of a lot of other people including Thespians, Thebans and helots marched off to Thermopylae.

Here's where we get to what I found to be the film's most baffling inaccuracy, or omission, or however you want to look at it. As a myth and religion specialist, for me, the most interesting aspect of the Battle of Salamis by far is the story Herodotus tells about the oracle given to the Athenians. The Athenians go consult the Delphic Oracle, who tells them to 'trust in their wooden walls'. Some argued that this meant the wooden walls surrounding the Acropolis and retreated there. This did not go well for them - as in the film, Xerxes turned up and burned the lot (though the architecture of Athens seen in the film dates to much later; the Parthenon was built between 447 and 432. This is par for the course with films, which have an equal tendency to throw the Colosseum into films about ancient Rome regardless of whether or not it had been built at the period the film is set). Themistocles, however, insisted that 'wooden walls' was Oracle-speak for their ships - the ones he had persuaded them to build. Then, apparently (and bearing in mind that Herodotus, he of the tall tales, is our source for all this) he pretended to defect to Xerxes and persuaded Xerxes to attack in the narrow straits at Salamis, despite this losing him his advantage in numbers, before heading back to the Greeks, leaving Xerxes to be badly defeated at Salamis (the war finally came to an end with the Battle of Plataea the following year).

Now, all this sounds like a pretty exciting story to me. Goodness knows how true any of it is - it is Herodotus - but it's real history, or real gossip at least, much like Suetonius' lives of Roman Emperors. So why on earth would you make a film about Themistocles without including any of this whatsoever?! Gorgo says something vague about the Athenians needing to trust in their wooden ships, Xerxes burns Athens and that's as close as it gets. Themistocles even implies that Athens' navy isn't up to much and they have to be saved by the Spartans - the Spartans were great soldiers and they could fight at sea when they had to, but naval battles were hardly their speciality.

Of course, looking for accuracy in a film like this is pointless - you just have to take comfort from the odd bit that gets thrown in. Look! It's Xerxes' bridge across the Hellespont! And Athens was, in this period, a democracy - though the film spends about ten minutes trying to acknowledge that Greece is made up of a collection of city-states before giving up and making anachronistic references to nations and country and 'Mother Greece'. I actually rather liked seeing the Athenians brawling at an assembly meeting. Goodness knows why they appear to be in a temple when these meetings took place outdoors on a hillside (the Pnyx) but I bet they degenerated into brawls quite often.

Rather than interesting itself in actual history, the film creates a new villain out of Xerxes' mistress Artemisia and sets her against Themistocles reimagined, not as an intelligent and charismatic leader, but as Leonidas Mark II in a beautiful blue cloak and not much else (if Spartan red cloaks are designed so that you can't see them bleeding, is Themistocles' blue cloak supposed to hide the... water?!). According to Herodotus, Artemisa really was pretty cool, accompanying the expedition, fighting and sinking a ship on her way out. Historically, however, she warned Xerxes not to attack at Salamis, not vice versa. And I suspect she had less angry fight-sex with her enemies in which it's not clear whether it's entirely consensual or, if not, who's raping whom, in the process. Still, Eva Green puts in a terrific performance, one that feels like it's a level above the film that she's in. Lena Headey, who I love and who is fantastic in everything, is also great, while the male cast are more sort of... there. They're all fine, but the film misses Gerard Butler (and even more it misses his Scottish accent, since the Athenians, while shunning clothes as much as the Spartans, seem to have added tiny little kilt-things to their Y-fronts, creating an overall effect not a million miles from a 'sexy' Catholic schoolgirl fancy dress costume. They should have just gone all out and actually quoted Braveheart).

Greek history is notably short on women (even more so than Roman history - the Romans were more inclined to admire the occasional exceptional woman than the Greeks) and it's nice to see the film consciously trying to redress the balance, however dubiously. Oddly enough Artemisa's story actually aligns quite well with Greek mythology towards the end - Greek myth is fond of powerful Amazon warriors, sexually attractive and wild, who must eventually be subdued (killed or married) by the super-masculine male hero. Themistocles' defeat of Artemisia falls neatly into that category, and the visual of her falling to her knees before him after he's run her through is rather disturbingly patriarchal - though ameliorated by Gorgo appearing at the head of the Spartan fleet, jumping into the fight with gusto. (Sparta had two kings at a time and it should be the second king Themistocles negotiates with after Leonidas' death but whatever, this increases the female cast by 100% and ties in better with the first movie).

The visuals in the film are similar to 300 and some of the sea battles are fairly impressive. The Persians' huge wooden battleships are probably larger than they should be, but the section with the oil was impressive, though I doubt oil would make ships blow up like that (and the idea of 'Greek fire' come from the later Byzantine period, though they used fire-based weapons earlier as well). The film lingers frequently over Persian slaves chained to their oars, preferring to skim over the fact the Greek ships are rowed by slaves as well. The whole thing gets fairly silly, but I must admit I didn't find it boring - at one point there were actual sea serpents! (Brother thinks that was a dream, but I have my doubts).

This scene looked particularly impressive in IMAX 3D

The dialogue, however, was utterly terrible throughout - which was one of the reasons I kept laughing all the way through. 'Mad Greek weather' amused me (try the English Channel, mate), as did 'Seize your glory!', which sort of makes sense in ancient Greek, in which kleos (glory) is a thing you can earn by killing enough people, but makes rather less sense in English. My favourite terrible line, though, had to be a reference to someone's eyes having 'the stink of Destiny.' I'll make sure to watch out for the stink of Destiny, or indeed the stink-eye of Destiny, in future.

There's a rather lovely irony to the title. A much earlier Oracle from Delphi supposedly told King Croesus of Lydia that if he went to war he would destroy a great empire and off he went, not realising the empire in question would be his own (this is another of Herodotus' stories). The film's sub-title, Rise of an Empire, would seem to apply to the Persian attacking forces, but it actually applies even better to the Athenians. After the Persian wars, the Athenians led an alliance called the Delian League which eventually morphed into the Athenian Empire, kick-started by their leadership of the navy during the Persian wars (and eventually contributing to their long war with Sparta). I'm not sure whether it was deliberate, but the title could refer rather nicely to the rise of the Athenian empire, rather than the already risen Persian one.

On a similar theme, there was an interesting moment in which Themistocles implied that maybe the Spartan ideal of dying on the battlefield wasn't the healthiest approach to life. The Spartans won the Peloponnesian war against Athens, but declined in power soon after, partly thanks to a catastrophic decline in their citizen male population. There were a lot of reasons for this (helot revolts, an earthquake, thinking you have healthier children if you have sex less often, preferring male lovers) but their tendency to refuse to abandon a hopeless fight may have been a contributing factor.

All in all, this is not a good film, but it could have been worse. A lot of the problems with it bring into relief the inherent problems with making films about Greek history at all. For example, some critics (I think it was probably Mark Kermode on his and Simon Mayo's podcast that I was listening to) have said they thought there was too much exposition at the beginning. But if you actually tried to explain the political situation in ancient Greece and the cause of the Persian wars properly, it would have taken a lot longer than that. The Roman Empire is easy - here's a big empire you've probably heard of, with an emperor at the head of it (the Roman Republic is much more complicated, which is probably why there are fewer films about it). But a group of states that aren't even a single country and all have different forms of government and different agendas is a much harder sell, and even the broad outline of Greek history is less well known to the general public. With that in mind, I have to say I think this is a brave attempt - daft, but brave. I just don't understand why they didn't want to include the Oracle story...

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Monday, 10 February 2014

The Lego Movie (dir. Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, 2014)


Brother and I went to an advanced screening of The Lego Movie this weekend, and really enjoyed it. (We tried to ignore the fact we were the only unaccompanied adults there. Maybe we should go for an evening showing next time). It was half an animated kids' adventure and half a zany comedy that does a far better job spoofing various pop culture franchises than any spoof movie has since Galaxy Quest. Considering it features Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman, it's probably also the closest we'll get to a Justice League movie any time soon.

The reason I'm blogging it is that one of the central characters is named after a Roman architect and engineer, Vitruvius. Vitruvius is the author of De Architectura, the only surviving Roman text on architecture, which includes chapters on temples, houses, wall paintings, aqueducts and how to defend against siege engines, among other things. For me, the most interesting parts are those on how to site and lay out a town (there were a lot of planned towns in ancient Rome, it must have been a whole Empire of Milton Keyneses - gah!) and most importantly of all, material on cement and concrete, one of the Romans' greatest technical achievements (I used to work for RMC and my Dad is a freelance specialist in cementitious solutions, so I get weirdly excited about cement and concrete sometimes).

I love that Morgan Freeman's character in the film was named after Vitruvius. The character is the textbook wise old mentor (he's mistaken for Gandalf at one point) and leader of the Master Builders, the Legos who don't need to follow the instructions, but design and build their own creations, so naming him after the famous architect was a lovely touch. The name works perfectly whether or not you know its origin as well, since Latinised names are so often used for wizards or wise old characters anyway. Some of the main characters in the film are transposed from other franchises, most notably Batman, but I like that Vitruvius wasn't Gandalf or Dumbledore or Merlin, but was his own character (he's clearly named after Vitruvius rather than being supposed to be Vitruvius, I think). It fits with the theme of the story, about breaking the mold and doing your own thing (though having said that, I did appreciate the section where it was pointed out that sometimes, in some circumstances, it is actually important to follow the instructions and work together!).

As I said, I really enjoyed the film as a comedy. I was a bit worried that younger children wouldn't get the satire of some of the in-jokes. The satire isn't especially deep or subtle (President Business is the bad guy) and the pop culture references were mostly to reasonably child-friendly things, at least for an older child - there were no Game of Thrones references or anything like that, and only one potentially rude joke (and that might just have been my dirty mind at work). Older children should get almost as much of it as an adult, though they may have a less emotional reaction to the appearances of the Lego Pirate Ship or the 1980s Lego Spaceman.

But I was worried younger children would be lost - worries that I suspect were unfounded. As we left the cinema, a small child behind us was gleefully singing the song 'Everything is Awesome!' over and over and over again - so I think the bright colours, lively action and horribly ear-wormy tune are enough to keep younger children happy as well. I'd thoroughly recommend this for anyone, especially if, like us, you're all Serioused out on Oscar-bait movies about slavery or AIDS or the stock market and want to relax for an hour or two.

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Sunday, 2 February 2014

The Rain Wilds Chronicles (by Robin Hobb)


I got some exciting news this week. I'll be speaking at the academic conference at Worldcon 2014 - otherwise known as Loncon 2014 - on Robin Hobb's Tawny Man trilogy. Hobb is one of the convention's invited guests, and since I've loved her books since I was a teenager, I'm a little nervous!

Some spoilers follow.

Hobb has written four series set in a particular fantasy universe, the Realm of the Elderlings. Over the past month I've been catching up on the most recent and the only one I hadn't read, the Rain Wilds Chronicles. This was partly in preparation for Loncon, but mostly because of the announcement that a fifth series will be coming out soon which, like the first and third, will focus on two of mine and OldHousematetheRomeone's all-time favourite literary characters, Fitz and the Fool. It would be hard to exaggerate just how in love with these two - well, Fitz anyway - we were when we were in school. We had significant disagreement over our feelings about where things were left at the end of the Tawny Man trilogy, which at the time we read it (aged about 20 I think) she loved and I hated. Now older and wiser, I no longer hate the ending (in fact, I like it a lot), but I'm also very, very happy that it wasn't the end after all. I would read about these characters sitting and watching paint dry.

Anyway, to my eternal disappointment, neither of them were in the Rain Wilds Chronicles, but I enjoyed the books very much anyway. My 18-yr-old self would have absolutely loved them, as they're rather happier and more romantic than the earlier books. The older and more bitter me was a bit over-whelmed with the candy-sweet romance in places - it seems the more time goes by, the happier Hobb's books get, and the more miserable and cynical I get! But I raced through the series and enjoyed the various enrichments of Hobb's mythology, even if it was frustrating spending most of the series wanting to scream at the characters 'It's over there!'

One of the central elements of the Realm of the Elderlings mythology is that there was once a great civilization of Elderlings (people who lived alongside dragons and took on dragonish attributes) and dragons. Something terrible happened, the Elderlings all died off and the dragons disappeared, leaving remnants of their civilization buried in mud or hidden in the mountains. Throughout the series these relics have been plundered by those wanting to make money out of them, and a whole culture (that of the Bingtown and Rain Wilds Traders) has grown up around the excavation and sale of magical Elderling items. It's a rather nice evocation of the way ancient archaeological discoveries were treated during most of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. To the eternal dismay of modern archaeologists, sites were destroyed with no records made of their state at discovery and their treasures collected and sold or scattered around the museums of Europe and North America. Real archaeologists, much as they might like to be seen as cool adventurers, would hate Lara Croft or Indiana Jones.

The story of the Rain Wilds Chronicles revolves around the search for and discovery of Kelsingra, a lost Elderling city, alongside the recovery of dragons as a species. (I'm pretty sure Fitz and the Fool discovered Kelsingra, or somewhere very like it, back in the Farseer trilogy, but the geography is deliberately a bit vague at this point. It was either an outer suburb of Kelsingra, which is apparently huge, or a smaller Elderling city further into the mountains). One of the main characters is Alise, a scholar who has studied Elderling civilization through their surviving art and literature. Alise is an armchair scholar until she joins the expedition, not an archaeologist (in modern terms she'd be closer to a Classicist), but she's the only person who seems really interested in the history of the lost city, rather than its treasure (the new Elderlings are interested in how they can use it to live in, which is a different sort of interest in treasure). When they arrive, she's desperate to study the city, to sketch and record everything they find before the treasure hunters arrive and it's destroyed.

Sophia Schliemann, wife of Heinrich Schliemann, who excavated Troy and Mycenae, wearing excavated jewels

For the most part, we Classicists and archaeologists would be firmly on Alise's side. But an interesting dilemma is raised when the new generation of developing Elderlings start wanting to use the city, rather than record and preserve it in the state in which they found it. Alise comes into conflict with them, as she wants everything kept as it is, in a fossilized state. I have to admit, I'm on the side of the young Elderlings on this one. Obviously, I'm all in favour of preserving historical sites as far as is practical, and definitely of preserving historical texts (the desperation of Classicists to find lost texts can be matched only by the desperation of Doctor Who fans looking for missing episodes). But I think there comes a point where the interests of the living have to outweigh the interests of the dead. Of course I believe that history is valuable and important or I wouldn't do what I do, and the looting and destruction of museum artefacts in times of war is heart-breaking, but any time we reach a point where the preservation of historical sites and artefacts is placed above the needs of the living, we've gone too far.

One of my favourite archaeological sites is Diocletian's palace in Split, in Croatia. Diocletian was a late Roman emperor, responsible for the last great persecution of Christians (he was followed by Constantine the Great). Within his 'palace', which is huge, are sections of the Roman architecture which have been preserved and which are fascinating to see. But throughout other parts, the 'palace' has been in constant use over the last 1500 years or so, and the Roman base has been built on and added to throughout the centuries. It's now a bustling place full of flats, restaurants and markets, and it's absolutely gorgeous. It's good to preserve history, but it's good to live as well - and if historical monuments need to be altered to improve accessibility for the living, or there's a choice between preserving a monument and preserving someone's farm, I'd choose the living every time.

(I should probably mention at this point that Alise's scholarly studies are rendered rather less useful by the Elderlings' fondness for preserving their memories in stone, allowing others to see their ghosts or re-live their lives in the style of Star Trek: The Next Generation's 'The Inner Light'. But that's beside the point!).

There was one other Classical reference in this series, relating to the mysterious country of Chalced. Chalced has been a shadow lying between the Six Duchies of the Farseer/Tawny Man books and Bingtown, of the Liveship/Rain Wilds books, for years, a fairly faceless country which relies on slave labour while its neighbours outlaw the practice, the eternal bad guy that also conveniently separates the protagonists of the different series. Other than a penchant for slavery and attacking its neighbours, nothing much had been established about Chalced before, so the slate was relatively clean for it.

In this series, it is revealed that the evil and totally batshit crazy Duke of Chalced is named Antonicus Kent. This feels like a weird name to me as 'Kent' tends to suggest either Kent Brockman from The Simpsons or the county in which I was born, but I can see where Hobb was going with it - mad, murderous, autocratic leaders always have to have Roman-sounding names.  The TV Trope is called the Caligula for a reason. Kent, unlike many examples of this trope, took the throne himself and went slowly mad from abuse of power over the years, rather than suffering the results of in-breeding, but otherwise fits the trope nicely.

My main reservation with this storyline is that Kent should have been assassinated long before things got to the point they do in this series. Absolute monarchs can reign in terror for a while, and if they keep it in check, they can do pretty well - Tiberius lasted a good while before possibly dying naturally, and Henry VIII was fine, albeit unhealthy. But even absolute monarchs who go to the sort of extremes Antonicus Kent does tend to get assassinated (Caligula, Nero, Domitian, Commodus, and I'm sure there are some non-Roman examples). If the monarch is about to kill you and your entire family for the smallest slight anyway, you might as well plot against him, you lose nothing and you might gain a lot. As the story went on and the Duke got worse and worse, it seemed to stretch plausibility a bit that no one had managed to do away with him and take over themselves. Still, it all led to a pretty cool finale, so I guess it was worth it.

(Actually, it's probably as much the case that these monarchs went down in history as mad/cruel etc. because they were assassinated and their successors/usurpers needed to justify usurping the throne - many of them were probably nowhere near as bad as they're made out to be. But the point still stands - hack off enough nobles and you will be assassinated).

I enjoyed this series, but my heart belongs to the Farseer and Tawny Man books, so the new Fitz and the Fool book is the one I'm really looking forward to. Whether any of these characters or Kelsingra will appear is hard to say - so far the crossovers have mostly been between the Farseer and Tawny Man books on the one hand and the Liveship and Rain Wilds books on the other (I loved seeing Althea, Brashen and Paragon again, and hearing from Wintrow). However, there are some notable exceptions to that rule, and whatever the new series is about I think it's pretty likely to involve dragons in some way, so I'm excited to see how it all fits together, and whether poor Alise will get to preserve any historical artefacts at all!

Sunday, 19 January 2014

Top 10 Classical Musicals

I love musicals, the cheesier the better. This is something of a source of frustration for me, as my brother is a classically-trained opera singer (though he likes and performs in musicals too). I like opera OK (I enjoyed Madame Butterfly very much, and I like The Mikado, if that counts) and I am dimly aware that there's lots of fascinating Classical stuff in opera. (Ed played Acis in Acis and Galatea once, and I'm struggling to remember if I went to see it. I am a very bad sister).

What I really love, though, is opera's younger cousin, musicals. It's not to do with the amount of singing in proportion to dialogue, as one of my absolute favourites is Les Miserables. I just like the more modern style. I'm a big fan of Andrew Lloyd Webber, and can make a whole room full of musicians groan when I remind them that I really like the cheesy key change that always gets popped in towards the end of Lloyd Webber songs. I'm especially fond of belting out the big numbers to myself while alone in my car, which makes me a strange person to be stuck next to in a traffic jam. West End musical producers, if you could hire my brother so I can spend my time going to see big hit musicals instead of Stockhausen's Mittwoch Aus Licht, I'd be very grateful.

And so without further ado, my Top 10 Classical musicals. When I started trying to think of examples, I was surprised how many there are of these!

10. Godspell
Where in the ancient world are we? The story is from Roman-period Judaea and Galilee. It's quite well known. The show is usually performed in modern dress as far as I know; the film is shot in 1970s New York City, though the spoken dialogue is kept largely intact from translations of the Gospels.
Is this a comedy or a tragedy? Much of it is pretty light in tone, but there are serious sections. The main character dies at the end.
Most toe-tapping tune: Probably 'Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord', which we've actually used as a hymn in church on Palm Sunday.
Best song: Probably 'Prepare Ye' again, though 'Day by Day' is also nice.
Theatre is expensive. Can I just buy the DVD? The original production had Jesus followed around a playground by a troupe of clowns and the 1973 film is... interesting. Mr Andrews from Titanic wanders around in huge '70s hair and a Superman T-shirt, surrounded by clowns/hippies covered in face paint. He's 'crucified' by being tied to a flimsy-looking fence and loudly insisting he's dying. Like Jesus Christ Superstar, the film doesn't depict the Resurrection; unlike Jesus Christ Superstar, some stage productions do, so if that's important to you, you need to seek out particular stage productions, and most directors play around with the setting to make it look less ridiculous. Essentially, the film is OK and the tunes are great, but it's dated very badly - though the location filming in New York is gorgeous.
Watch it because: If you only watch one early 1970s hippie musical about Jesus that leaves out the Resurrection... watch Jesus Christ Superstar. But if you have time for two, Godspell is certainly interesting (a euphemism for seriously weird) and there's no denying the earworm qualities of 'Prepare Ye.'



9. Moulin Rouge!
Where in the ancient world are we? The story is a (very) loose re-telling of the story of Orpheus set in Paris in 1900. To be honest, it's such a loose re-telling that I didn't even notice that's what it was, but that's what the director says.
Is this a comedy or a tragedy? A tragedy, but much of the film in between the sad bits is hilarious.
Most toe-tapping tune: The tune is catchy, but the performances are what make it - Jim Broadbent, Richard Roxburgh and a supporting cast of waiters' rendition of 'Like a Virgin' has to be seen to be believed (in a good way).
Best song: Since the soundtrack is put together from some of the greatest hits of seriously big pop artists, it's really hard to pick a favourite. I'm a huge fan of Queen and 'The Show Must Go On' is one of my favourite Queen songs, so I love the cover of that; the 'Elephant Love Medley' is brilliant, and 'Roxanne' is dark, passionate and possibly an improvement on the already great original. The one song written for the film, 'Come What May', stands its ground among all the fabulousness as well, and provides a suitably rousing musical-theatre finale that you wouldn't get from the pop songs.
Theatre is expensive. Can I just buy the DVD? Yes, as it is a film rather than a stage show. (You Tube seems to have some videos of amateur stage versions, dance versions etc. - I dread to think how much it must cost to get the rights to all those songs).
Watch it because: Faramir-in-drag storms off in a huff, Jim Broadbent sings Madonna, Ewan MacGregor is in it, Kylie is a fairy, there's a narcoleptic Argentinian... why wouldn't you want to watch it?!



8. Xena Warrior Princess, The Bitter Suite
Where in the ancient world are we? Wherever and whenever Xena is set... a sort of vaguely medieval fantasy-land peopled with (some) characters from Greek mythology.
Is this a comedy or a tragedy? Tragedy. In the ancient world, a tragedy didn't have to have a sad ending (though many of them did). The difference between the two was that tragedy took its subject matter seriously. Also, it tended to include fewer fart gags.
Most toe-tapping tune: We know we're into some weirdness and should suspend disbelief even more than usual when we're introduced to 'The Land of Illusia' (which seems more like the underworld to me, but there you go).
Best song: Xena's heart-rending apology to Gabrille and Soren in 'The Love of Your Life' at the end is beautiful.
Theatre is expensive. Can I just buy the DVD? Yes, as it's a TV episode - though you might need to buy quite a few other episodes of Xena: Warrior Princess as well.
Watch it because: Although this episode of Xena is neither the first TV musical nor necessarily the best, it is the one that kicked off the trend in the late '90s and noughties. The whole thing is beautifully put together, with real emotion in the songs and some stirring tunes, plus, of course, the obligatory tango. Incidentally, three of the entries on this list include crucifixion, but only one follows it up with resurrection. It's this one.



7. Frogs
Where in the ancient world are we? This is an up-dating of Aristophanes' comedy Frogs, set largely in the underworld.
Is this a comedy or a tragedy? Comedy. This musical, first put together in 1941, expanded in 1974 and expanded again in 2004, is based on a specific ancient comic play. Stephen Sondheim wrote the music in 1974, and expanded the score in 2004 for a Broadway run.
Most toe-tapping tune: 'Shaw' brings a smile to the face as it 'samples' (I believe this is Musician for 'steals') from My Fair Lady.
Best song: The 'Invocation and Instructions to the Audience' sets the tone nicely and both updates the play and references Aristophanes himself.
Theatre is expensive. Can I just buy the DVD? Frustratingly, it doesn't seem to be available - I've only seen/heard it through clips and recordings on YouTube. You can buy the Broadway revival soundtrack starring Nathan Lane on CD, but that's it. If anyone knows how to get hold of a video recording, I'd be very grateful!
Watch it because: Although I've never had the chance to actually see the thing, I love the idea of this. Frogs is one of my favourite Aristophanes plays and the idea of up-dating it to be a contest between George Bernard Shaw and Shakespeare is great (and introduces various themes concerning social commentary and the power of drama of which Aristophanes, who frequently whined in his plays that he knew how things should be done better than anyone else and everyone should listen to him, would have thoroughly approved). The parts I've seen on YouTube are also very funny.



6. O Brother, Where Art Thou?
Where in the ancient world are we? The film, set in the Depression-era American South, is supposedly based on The Odyssey. Supposedly. Some of the characters have the same names and there's a guy with one eye.
Is this a comedy or a tragedy? Although The Odyssey is a reasonably serious epic poem, it has a lot of scope for lighter interpretation, especially in the adventure tales, and this film is a fairly light comedy.
Most toe-tapping tune: I suppose it's stretching it a bit to call this a 'musical', but there are several songs sung by various characters and music is very important to the film, playing a big role in the plot, so I think it counts. The song the boys sing that becomes so important, 'Man of Constant Sorrow', is evocative, catchy and nicely sums up thematically the life story of poor old Odysseus.
Best song: My favourite song from the soundtrack is easily the ethereal and beautiful 'Down in the River to Pray'.
Theatre is expensive. Can I just buy the DVD? Yes, it's a film.
Watch it because: The only Coen Brothers film I really get is True Grit, but I love the atmosphere of this film. I don't really know anything about the culture of the American South, and I've never been there, but this feels a bit like a window into that world.



5. A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum
Where in the ancient world are we? An unfashionable suburb of Rome, in a comedy pulled together from various elements of Plautus' comedies.
Is this a comedy or a tragedy? Comedy. This is the second Sondheim musical based on ancient comedy in this list, though this time the story is put together from recurring themes from Plautus' plays rather than being an adaptation of a specific play. Also, this one's Roman.
Most toe-tapping tune: After I saw a stage production of the show when I was about 10 years old, I continued to remember and sing bits of 'Comedy Tonight' for the next 20 years.
Best song: Definitely 'Comedy Tonight.'
Theatre is expensive. Can I just buy the DVD? The 1966 film is a pretty good version, though it has some odd, very '60s', moments. Personally, I prefer the stage show. The breaking of the fourth wall feels more natural on stage and I remember loving it when I saw it, despite - or perhaps because of - most of the jokes going over my head at the time. The film goes a bit mad and the attempt to juxtapose gritty realism and Brechtian levels of self-conscious performance doesn't work so well for me. On the other hand, the film has Buster Keaton in it, so that's pretty cool.
Watch it because: This is probably the closest it's possible to get to experiencing an ancient play in a similar way to the ancients, as it's updated enough to make sense as a modern production, but not so updated as to becomes a completely different thing.



4. My Fair Lady
Where in the ancient world are we? My Fair Lady is a musical adaptation of George Bernard Shaw's play Pygmalion, which takes its name from, and echoes some of the themes of, the ancient myth of Pygmalion and his statue. That may sound a bit tenuous, but the film version does play up the Classical links in places.
Is this a comedy or a tragedy? Hard to say. It depends partly on how you feel about the ending used for the musical, chosen from the several available options after Shaw added some extra bits when no one liked the original one.
Most toe-tapping tune: I knew the song 'Get Me to the Church On Time' long before I ever saw the musical - though 'The Rain in Spain' is also very popular and earworm-y.
Best song: 'I Could Have Danced All Night' and 'On the Street Where You Live' are classics, but I'm very fond of 'Wouldn't It Be Loverly?'
Theatre is expensive. Can I just buy the DVD? The film is an all-time classic; a little bit long perhaps, and I feel slightly uncomfortable about Audrey Hepburn being dubbed by Marni Noxon when they could have just hired Julie Andrews, but utterly gorgeous, funny and tragic all at once.
Watch it because: See above. And it's interesting to see just where 'Get Me to the Church On Time' comes from.



3. Buffy the Vampire Slayer, 'Once More With Feeling'
Where in the ancient world are we? The main point of this episode is just to get everyone singing their feelings, but the plot, such as it is, is a loose version of the myth of Persephone.
Is this a comedy or a tragedy? Tragedy, though 'They Got the Mustard Out' is hilarious.
Most toe-tapping tune: It's hard not to bop along to 'I'll Never Tell'.
Best song: A really tough choice, and I love 'Going Through the Motions', but I also have a real fondness for big numbers with everyone singing over-lapping tunes, so I'll have to go for 'Walk Through The Fire'.
Theatre is expensive. Can I just buy the DVD? Yes, and you can even get this one by itself without the rest of Buffy season six if you want to - which you might well do (I am, I'm afraid, one of those people who really hates a lot of Buffy season six).
Watch it because: This is easily the best TV musical episode I've ever seen. The music is great, the songs fit each character, the funny bits are funny, the sad bits are sad and the singing is pretty good (especially Antony Stewart Head, who's starred in musicals, playing Frank N Furter in The Rocky Horror Show). It's not perfect, but it's pretty close.



2. Hercules
Where in the ancient world are we? Greece's mythical past, in the age of heroes.
Is this a comedy or a tragedy? Comedy, though there are serious moments.
Most toe-tapping tune: Everything the Muses sing is pretty catchy, but their opening number, 'The Gospel Truth', is probably the best.
Best song: 'Go the Distance' is great but I love 'I Won't Say (I'm in Love)'.
Theatre is expensive. Can I just buy the DVD? Yes, as this is an animated film - though to be fair, that didn't stop them making a stage musical version of The Lion King. But doing the Titans on stage would definitely be a challenge.
Watch it because: Hercules probably isn't the film most people would name as their favourite Disney. Slotting in right at the end of the 1990s Disney Renaissance and only two years after Toy Story, when not everything was CGI yet, we children of the '80s and 90's are more likely to name Aladdin, The Little Mermaid or Beauty and the Beast as classic, generation-defining Disney animation. But Hercules is a great film, with solid tunes, warm humour and a style to the animation that at least differentiates its characters from their Disney stablemates (is there honestly any difference at all between Aladdin and Prince Eric?). Plus Meg really makes the film, a husky-voiced, cynical woman who's deeply flawed but still sympathetic. Just try to ignore the bit where they put an attempted rape scene in a kids' movie.



1. Jesus Christ Superstar
Where in the ancient world are we? Back where we started. Except this one is filmed in Israel, not NYC.
Is this a comedy or a tragedy? Tragedy. Jesus Christ Superstar is a Passion play, telling the story of Jesus' death from the entrance into Jerusalem, commemorated the week before Easter in various Christian denominations, through the Last Supper, arrest, flogging and crucifixion.
Most toe-tapping tune: In amongst all this gloom, in the middle of the story of Jesus' arrest and trial before Pilate, we get 'King Herod's Song'. Based on an incident recorded in Gospel of Luke in which Pilate tries to pass Jesus over to Herod Antipas and make him his problem, the song is used to incorporate a purely comical interlude in what is otherwise a fairly grim production, Hosannas aside.
Best song: I absolutely love 'Gethsemane'; Ted Neeley's performance in the 1973 film is heart-breaking.
Theatre is expensive. Can I just buy the DVD? You wait 2,000 years for a musical film with hippies and Jesus and then two come along at once. Like Godspell, Jesus Christ Superstar is a musical that can be really weird, or can be really good, depending on the production. Unlike Godspell, the 1973 film version of Jesus Christ Superstar is very, very good. It plays down some of the sexier parts, which are played up in other productions, and Mary Magdalene's love for Jesus is rather more chaste than in some, though there's still a lot of oiling going on. The supporting cast are again wearing very dated 1970s outfits, but they're not clowns and don't have any face paint on, and Jesus is dressed in a bog-standard white robe, so the only scene that's distractingly dated is the brash finale. The conceit of showing the actors arriving by coach is nice (though it does sort of imply they left Ted Neeley to die out there - fortunately the DVD commentary confirms they didn't) and the shepherd who wanders in a symbolic-looking manner across the screen at the end was a real bit of luck for the director. I'm not claiming to be familiar with many other versions of Jesus Christ Superstar, but I suspect Norman Jewison's film is one of the best.
Watch it because: This is my favourite Andrew Lloyd Webber musical. There's a seriousness to the plot and the songs that isn't always there in his other productions and I love the way he twists and plays with lines from the Gospels and from Christian prayers, especially 'Yours is the power and the glory'. Also, while as a Catholic obviously I disapprove on theological grounds, the bit where the disciples imply there's something dubious in the bread at the Last Supper and say they want to write the Gospels so they'll be famous is hilarious.



Honourable mention: Monty Python's Life of Brian isn't a musical, but does end on a fabulous and different entry into the 'musical crucifixions' sub-genre.



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