sovay: (Default)
sovay ([personal profile] sovay) wrote2011-02-18 03:31 am

Far off, a symphony—do you hear the guns beginning?

1. Somehow I had managed to miss that PJ Harvey's Let England Shake (2011) is at least half a concept album of World War I, with three songs about Gallipoli and elsewhere allusions to packing up troubles and no man's land, the big guns and hanging on the wire. It's also excellent. I think it would be great if she actually became an official war song correspondent.

2. Alejandro Amenábar's Agora (2009) is not any kind of film to watch if you want to cheer up, but I thought it was very good: it is almost an anti-sword-and-sandal, in that it is an epic of the late Roman Empire, but the swords solve nothing and neither does the Bible; there are the familiar moments of conversion, illumination, defiance, but they are almost all reversed or recast from troubling angles, and it may be the only film I've ever seen with a reasonable depiction of slavery in antiquity. (Hypatia is not signaled to be a good person by an anachronistic belief in human equality: she doesn't think about it. Slaves are ubiquitous, moveable furniture; she may be fond of some and rely on others, but she can in one moment praise a slave's intelligence in front of her students and the next reproach two of them with a comment about brawls being "for slaves and riff-raff." None of the characters think about it: except the characters who are slaves, who can never afford not to.) I would like to have seen its fifth-century Alexandria on a big screen; its statues are painted and its streets are full of heat-shimmer and dust. The Christians are the villains of the piece by virtue of history—Hypatia was martyred bludgeoned to death by huge fucking rocks by a Christian mob in 415 CE—which does not mean that all the pagan characters are plaster saints. This is even a film that remembers there were Jews in the ancient world when the Passion wasn't going on.

What I may appreciate most of all is that Amenábar did not write a romance for Hypatia, as it is almost de rigueur for biographies of scientific figures to "humanize" them—I invoke the scare quotes of extreme sarcasm—by reassuring the audience that while conic sections or general relativity are all very fine, it's really who you want to bonk that makes history. Somewhere in the alternate history of film is Agora as it was made in the 1960's, the big-budget Christian-pagan love story with the beautiful Neoplatonist torn between the two men who represent the conflicting philosophies of her world. There are several characters in this movie who would like to be in that one, but none of them are Rachel Weisz's Hypatia. She's not presented as asexual; she has no problems with affection. But she will never love another human being as she loves her mathematics and the mysteries of the universe she reaches for with falling weights and circles drawn in the sand, and the beauty of the scene in which she wonders aloud whether she might have been happier with a more conventional life is how simply it is demonstrated that the question proceeds from false premises: a glance up into the night sky and she's forgotten it. There's her life's love, the old problem of wanderers and epicycles. That's what she lights up for. Comparison is not even in it.

The script's not flawless. There is the inevitable line of dialogue that goes clunk and lies there. It could use an intermission as badly as any film since Lawrence of Arabia (1962), and I would really have appreciated a greater exploration of the politics surrounding the Diocese of Egypt in the second half of the story—the surtitles mention the final split between Western and Eastern Empires that followed on the death of Theodosius I in 395, but if this is meant to have contributed to the already unstable factionalism in Alexandria, we never do learn how. The real-life Synesius of Cyrene was quirkier and more science-minded than he is here depicted, which I find I am sorry about; I am also not convinced about the riots that lead to the destruction of the Serapeum, although I might just not have read the right sources. (I don't seem to care as much about Cyril of Alexandria, partly because contemporary sources do agree on his responsibility for Hypatia's death.) I wouldn't have minded as much time devoted to Neoplatonism as to the theories of Aristarchos of Samos. I'm sure I'd have even more historical arguments if I brushed up on my late antiquity. But it's still one of the better epics I've seen in some time, and one of the better onscreen realizations of a classical world, and there are just not enough movies with astronomer-heroines and no romance; I'm quite glad to have seen it. Just don't watch it to cheer up. The burning of the Library will guarantee against that for weeks.

3. This is the weirdest article I've seen all week. Why do people bother inventing alternate histories for World War II? The one we've got really is just crack.

4. Actually, this: "On 12 November 1916, a bizarre outbreak of mass hysteria produced 800 simultaneous sightings of Chaplin across America." That is, I think, weirder than 3-D Nazi bratwurst. And you shouldn't be able to say that about anything.

[identity profile] 2011-02-18 08:41 am (UTC)(link)
I love Agora so much, for all the reasons you state (it was so marvellous to see a film about a woman who is shown loving her work, for one thing) - the scene where she and her father's slave/co-researcher discover the mathematical model to account for planetary orbits was wonderful, I though, both for their genuine joy and the tiny, tiny moment that joy allows them to overcome their social statuses, and for the confused embarrassment with which their social statuses reassert themselves (and of course, for him, as the powerless one, to be effected first).

[identity profile] 2011-02-18 09:29 am (UTC)(link)
Alejandro Amenábar's Agora (2009)

Many many thanks for bringing this film to my attention.

[identity profile] 2011-02-28 10:55 pm (UTC)(link)
Well, you were certainly right about the 'horribly depressing' part. Wow.

I appreciated so much that she is intelligent and fascinated by science and aromantic, and that she never gets raped.

[identity profile] 2011-03-01 09:13 am (UTC)(link)
I wanted to cling to all the texts we still have, after watching the library's destruction.

It is a painful image, but I appreciated too that her last view in life is not a religious icon or a human face, but the circle of sky through the ruined library's rotunda, forming an ellipse.

Yes, that was fitting. And I liked that the movie gave her a humane death. And, wow, that a woman would be depicted as being so brave and courageous. I could probably enthuse forever about how much I love its portrayal of her.

[identity profile] 2011-02-18 12:39 pm (UTC)(link)
What I may appreciate most of all is that Amenábar did not write a romance for Hypatia, as it is almost de rigueur for biographies of scientific figures to "humanize" them—I invoke the scare quotes of extreme sarcasm—by reassuring the audience that while conic sections or general relativity are all very fine, it's really who you want to bonk that makes history.

400 years from now, I bet cultural historians are going to think that that preoccupation with the primacy of the sexual-love connection over ALL OTHERS was our weirdest feature.

Sounds like a great movie!

And the story about 800 simultaneous sightings of Chaplin--that's better than Elvis.


[identity profile] 2011-02-18 02:21 pm (UTC)(link)
Possibly more sensible, but still odd, is the fact that in lots (don't have any idea of the number - it may be only a few) of ex-slave narratives taken down after the US Civil War, Abraham Lincoln was spotted all across the South at some point after the Emancipation Proclamation. I'm not verbalizing this well, but apparently people remembered hearing it from him, not just hearing about him issuing it in Washington.

Lincoln bilocation

[identity profile] 2011-02-18 02:35 pm (UTC)(link)
That is really wonderful. Just wonderful.

[identity profile] 2011-02-20 02:50 pm (UTC)(link)
It was at the Landmark Kendall for a week or two, but by the time we had made plans to go see it, it was gone.

[identity profile] 2011-02-19 02:04 pm (UTC)(link)
If you feel like leaving comments on my blog, they'll be welcome. Reciprocal intelligent exchanges and all that...

[identity profile] 2011-02-18 03:36 pm (UTC)(link)
that while conic sections or general relativity are all very fine, it's really who you want to bonk that makes history.

And you win the internets.

"The quality of the films is fantastic," Mora told "The Nazis were obsessed with recording everything and every single image was controlled – it was all part of how they gained control of the country and its people."

Okay, that was a chill I just felt.

...and I see [ profile] asakiyume picked out the same line I did!

[identity profile] 2011-02-18 03:46 pm (UTC)(link)
Interestingly, the mass-sightings of Chaplin are a jumping off point for Sunnyside by Glen David Gold, which I just read. It goes on to chronicle Chaplin's somewhat fictionalized history through the end of World War I.

[identity profile] 2011-02-22 05:19 pm (UTC)(link)
I do, though I did like his Carter Beats the Devil better, but that's largely because I have a minor obsession with the stage magic of that period, and Carter was pretty much written for me.

[identity profile] 2011-02-18 04:28 pm (UTC)(link)
Yeah, a feel-good flick it's really not.;) Nevertheless, I'm glad you saw it, and that you seem to have responded pretty much the same way I did; it's obviously meant to be a conversation-starter, and I sure don't see it as being any more or less hagiographic than any given male-centred martyr narrative.

[identity profile] 2011-02-19 02:10 pm (UTC)(link)
It took a huge amount of flak for presenting her as "more important than she was" and for being anti-religious (a refreshing change, frankly). I discuss these points in my article.

[identity profile] 2011-02-19 12:07 am (UTC)(link)
Oh! Thank you for reminding me there is new PJ Harvey. :)

[identity profile] (from 2011-02-19 03:48 pm (UTC)(link)
I saw Agora when it first came out in NYC and loved Weisz' performance as Hypatia. I thought the film was beautifully shot, a bit uneven, but a wonderful exploration of modern themes in a historical context. I have a series of posts on the historical events and characters in the film at my blog ( - not a movie review, just a "reel vs. real" discussion.

[identity profile] 2011-02-20 06:32 am (UTC)(link)
That is, I think, weirder than 3-D Nazi bratwurst. And you shouldn't be able to say that about anything.

Very true, that, but at the same time I find the concept of hysterical sightings of Charlie Chaplin across the US rather appealing.

I hope you're feeling at least a little (ideally, a great amount) better now.

[identity profile] 2011-02-20 09:06 pm (UTC)(link)
I wish there were still Chaplin sightings.