Wednesday, August 21, 2013

post bellum, post mortem

The Trojan War, a semi prehistorical coflict of 3000 years ago, evolved into myth and legend by the time it was first sung by Homer as the Iliad, 300 years after the event, probably in the 8th century BC.

It's been 57 years since I read an English translation of that massive pile of a seminal work of classical culture, but I remember feeling, as I read Homer's remarkably explicit war porn with fascination in the summer of my 12th year, that I couldn't identify with the people of such a time and place. They seemed always to have one eye on what was happening in the world and the other cocked heavenward, trying to figure out who was favoured by the gods, and who was ill starred.

And what an insane collection of gods, so human in their attitudes, and always fighting, scheming, gossiping, begetting, and forever playing favorites among the mortals whose lives they controlled. At times they appeared to move the hapless humans around like pieces on a chessboard, with this god favoring that person and some other deity opposing the will of the first with his or her own pet human.

The notion of trying to reproduce a mentality of such profound antiquity, the nearly Neolithic point of view of people who lived, ate, fought, and slept with the gods, would be undesirable  and impractical even if possible. And it's to the credit of the producer and director (Wolfgang Peterson) of "Troy" that they didn't try. And in the film's credits, they were careful to point out the movie was "inspired by" the epic poem.

"Troy" makes no attempt to replicate Homer, so it needs to be judged on its own terms, which are these: the story told in the Iliad, with the gods edited out, is necessarily about the warriors, and their individual motivations for warring. A lot of the negative criticism of the movie, however, comes from reviewers' conviction that Peterson was making, or should have made "The Iliad for the Compleat Idiot."

So for Peter Rainer of New York magazine, the film's main flaw (besides its production cost of $175 million) was the absence of "an infusion of mythic feeling," adding "either you''re mythic or you're not." But he never gives a hint of what this "mythic feeling" consists of, nor does he name another picture which, in his view, has it.

David Denby's criticisms of the movie in the New Yorker were more more specific, and his view of the production more positive than Rainer's. Denby believes the screewriter, David Benioff, and director Peterson "may have made some unfortunate choices—they compressed and changed elements in the story, making it morally conventional (the bad guys get punished) in a way that the Iliad isn’t, and they never found a comfortable language for their heroes to speak. (“May the gods keep the wolves in the hills and the women in our beds” is a fairly typical locution.)...Yet the movie is successful."

I found it more than successful, for if "Troy" has flaws, they are implied in the work itself, of bringing an alien and remote consciousness into our modern industrial age. Having sunk 175 millions into the production, its creators needed to find a way to preserve at least parts of Homer's narrative in a way intelligible to modern movie goers.

Denby says: "Benioff and Petersen must have thought that few people in a modern democracy would accept sullied honor as a necessary cause for war, because they have turned Agamemnon into a kind of Greek Bismarck, a man mad for power, who, in the entertaining person of Brian Cox, has a talent for insinuation and malice."

Despite its weaknesses, "Troy" is easily the best film of its type ever made. I'll get into the reasons why I believe this tomorrow.

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