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My first exposure to epic poetry was in ninth grade English class, where we read selections from Homer’s Odyssey. This was also my first time encountering the story of the Trojan War, a war which this month’s issue of Archeology Magazine calls “the Western world's most mythic battle.” I began taking Latin the following year, and by the time I graduated I had read over 8000 lines of Vergil’s epic poem the Aeneid, which features an entire book dedicated to the end of the Trojan War, in the original Latin. My second semester at college I took a class called “Epic and Tragedy: the Trojan War,” and having spent a full semester with the subject and touched on it in my other Classics courses, I consider myself somewhat of an expert.

I’m also a fan.

When I saw the theatrical one-sheet for Troy, I hugged it. When the website first went online, I stared at it despite its lack of substantive content. When I was student teaching in a high school Latin class and my mentor teacher went out of town, I changed her desktop from a lovely photograph of a Roman amphitheatre to the movie’s poster. And this past Friday, I spent my afternoon sewing together a Greek chiton so I could geek out at my own personal Lord of the Rings in full garb.

So, as you can tell, I was fairly excited about this movie.

The movie began with a map of the ancient Mediterranean and overlaid on top of the map a great deal of textual narration about the history of the relationship between Achilles and Agamemnon as well as Agamemnon’s ambition of controlling all the land surrounding the Aegean. Immediately my mental “Incorrect Adaptation!” flag went up, but I knew that they had to alter things from the original myth to fit Hollywood’s expectations and desires. After the textual narration ended, we were treated to a scene of battle demonstrating just how much Achilles didn’t like Agamemnon but would fight for him anyway. This scene established one of the principle tensions in the film – that between Achilles and Agamemnon, literally, or between a soldier and the king for whom he fights, more broadly. This tension tied into one of the film’s largest themes – that of glory.

Military glory is something in which modern audiences don’t seem particularly interested, so to make it one of the focal points of this film was taking a bit of a risk. The film was full of rhetoric about names going down in history and debates over whether kings or soldiers were the real players in the game of war. I wish this theme had been explored more fully – it was repeatedly mentioned but no resolution was made. Clearly, the names of both kings and soldiers have come down to us in the legend of the Trojan War, and Achilles himself was royalty in the original legend.
The film’s other great theme was love. This was played out in many different ways: first, there was the destructive love of Paris and Helen, selfish and selfless at the same time, two people concerned so much with each other that the rest of the world fell away. Then there was the relationship of Achilles and Briseis, created almost entirely by the movie’s script, in which love brought peace to a man who had previously only known war. There was also the less central but perhaps more real love of Hector and his wife Andromache, a love that included their son Astyanax.

Hector outlines for the audience the key values of the ancient world: “Honor the gods, love your woman, and defend your country.” If from “woman” you extrapolate “family,” then you have the three requirements of the Roman virtus, the quality of being a “real man.”

The gods have no physical presence in the film; one of the film’s messages seems to be that the gods hold no power. Achilles states this most outright when he says that the gods envy humans, because the brevity of our life makes it more valuable; he also shows a disdain for the gods physically by beheading a statue of Apollo at Apollo’s own temple. It would be easy to say that this attitude were one of Achilles alone rather than of the film itself, if it weren’t for the fact that the Trojans repeatedly rely on “signs from the gods” to make their decisions in battle and that those signs are explicitly proven invalid.

Family is a value distinctly present on the Trojan side but not on the Greek side; Hector defends his brother despite the fact that his brother has brought ruin down upon the city. There is a brief indication of the importance of family to a Greek when Achilles takes his revenge upon Hector for killing his “cousin,” Patroclus. Patroclus was not Achilles’ cousin in the original Iliad, but rather a very close friend. It is not a stretch to make the leap to a homosexual relationship between the two, but this would undermine Achilles’ virility and the story of his relationship with Briseis and thus was changed for the film. Achilles is, however, presented as an anomaly among the Greeks, having different values and concerns than Agamemnon and Menelaus, who seem to represent Greekdom as a whole.

Defense of one’s country is, again, a value that resonates with the Trojans more than the Greeks. The Trojans are defending their city from invasion, while the Greeks are taking the offense. It is Odysseus who asks Achilles to fight for his country rather than for a king, but these two men are the only Greeks who seem fight for that purpose.

Taken together, the portrayal of these three values tends to identify the Trojans as “Good but naïve” and the Greeks as “Bad but smart.” This sets up a two-dimensional conflict, good vs. bad, where Homer’s Iliad blurs the lines so that we don’t know who we’re supposed to be supporting.

The movie’s greatest flaw, I think, is that it jumps around from theme to theme and character to character without choosing one focus or exploring any one theme in depth. This makes it difficult for “Troy” to be a truly epic film, since one of the foremost qualities of epic is that it addresses deeper truths and does so with quite a lot of words, or, in the case of film, pictures. It is true that “Troy” is almost as long as any of the installments of Lord of the Rings but it doesn’t seem as epic as any of them. I wasn’t invested in the fate of any character in the movie, and the great tragedy of the war was dulled by the fact that many of the Trojans escaped through a secret tunnel that led to some unidentified place “outside the city.” Hector made brief mention of the horrible things the Greeks would do to the Trojans such as “throw[ing] the babies from the walls” but the movie portrayed none of this. The pathos of this great war seemed to me utterly lacking, except perhaps in that the film deviated from mythology by having the two Greek kings, Menelaus and Agamemnon, die in war thus leaving the Greeks stranded across the sea from home with only Odysseus, the leader of one small island, to take them back home.

The film provides a lot of entertainment value, in that it is beautifully designed, has well-written dialogue that is even snappy at times, contains well-choreographed fight scenes, and tells an interesting, if not particularly emotionally compelling, story. Its cinematography is a bit weak and reflects the jumpy nature of the film’s plot by having battle sequences filmed in a way that simulates a handheld camera in the middle of the battle action. I think this was intended to give us the sense of “being there” but mostly it made me want to look away so as not to get motion sickness. The other major weakness is the soundtrack, which features the tribal ululations of an unknown female and a lot of drum beats at inappropriate times.

The casting is very successful, as Orlando Bloom seems born to play a lovestruck coward and Brad Pitt to play an arrogant killing machine. Sean Bean gives what may be the best performance in the film, balancing his portrayal of Odysseus as both the trickster he is and a warm, understanding leader of Greek forces. The women in the film don’t get to do very much and all fall prey to some form of submission-to-men or another, but that’s no different from the Iliad itself.

“Troy” is fairly true to the Iliad in terms of basic plot points, despite having Agamemnon and Achilles at each other’s throats before the Trojan War begins and shortening the war from ten years to two weeks. It writes its own story of what happens before Achilles’ rage and after the death of Hector, however, and should not be used to replace the Odyssey, the Aeneid, or any other text that provides the legend of what happened after the war was lost.

If you’re looking to see some very buff men throwing spears, shooting arrows, and stabbing one another, “Troy” is the film for you. If, however, you’re looking for an accurate adaptation of Homer’s Iliad, or the legend of the Trojan War more generally, your search may continue for a very long time.
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13 June 2005 @ 04:45 pm
Not really an essay, more like paragraphified notes...

Assignment One:
Comparing “The Public Enemy” and “The Maltese Falcon”

Overall Tone:
The first thing I noticed was lighting. In “The Public Enemy,” the lighting is non-essential. Almost every scene is brightly lit. Lighting is not used to convey atmosphere or emotion. It serves a purely functional purpose. It almost always comes from directly in front of the scene, so that the whole scene is well lit. There are no particularly interesting shadows. It serves a purpose that is entirely functional and not at all interpretive. In contrast, the lighting in “The Maltese Falcon” is generally darker, but is also more varied. It comes from different directions depending on the location or tone of the scene. (When Archer is murdered, the scene is very dark except for a bright light shining on him. In Sam Spade’s home, the light is warmer and comes from the bottom up, as if it were coming from table lamps.)

The second thing I noticed is how the two films deal with gun violence. In “The Public Enemy,” the only time we see any shooting is when Matt is shot by the Burns gang. He is shot from a distance, and we see the effects of the shooting in his body movements rather than actually seeing bullet holes. Otherwise, shooting is done off-screen. When Tom and Matt go after the horse responsible for Nails Nathan’s death, when Tom kills Putty Nose, when Tom takes revenge on the Burns gang for Matt’s death, the shooting is off-screen. In “The Maltese Falcon,” we watch Miles Archer being shot from what seems to be the perspective of his shooter. This is close, this is real. It leaves nothing to the imagination.

There is a valid argument for why each of these approaches towards violence is effective; in “The Public Enemy,” the writers’ intention was to show how bad the life of a gangster is. What the audience would imagine when hearing the shots, wheezes, and screams, is probably much worse than what they would see. “The Maltese Falcon” is showing a grittier view, without the intention of delivering a particular moral, and thus showing the shooting itself is more effective.

Lastly, I noticed the differences in camera movement. In “The Public Enemy,” the camera is almost always focused on a person or persons. We are constantly seeing faces, feeling sympathy or disgust based on how people are affected by the events happening around them. Much of the camera work in “The Maltese Falcon” focuses on objects such as the light on the floor of the office coming through the window, or the telephone as Sam picks it up when he finds out that Miles has been killed. This focus on objects rather than people adds to the sense of alienation that Borde and Chaumeton describe in “Towards a Definition of Film Noir.”

Protagonist’s Attitude:
Tom Powers, the protagonist in “The Public Enemy,” is very optimistic. He always assumes that things are going to go right for him. He glides through life trusting that he will be able to get what he wants. When something goes wrong, it angers him and he takes action in response to it. When Matt is killed, Tom gets his revenge, to the point of ultimately causing his own death. He did not expect such a thing to happen, and the fact that it did, and that it was entirely out of his control, angers him.

Sam Spade, the protagonist in “The Maltese Falcon,” has a more fatalistic attitude. He tends to operate under Murphy’s Law: “If anything can go wrong, it will.” He is surprised at nothing. When his partner is killed, he is not shocked in the least. That said, he is not happy or even complacent about it. He shows this when he turns over Bridget O’Shaughnessy to the police. He will not let his partner’s murderer get away with it. He does not get “revenge;” he is not outraged. He is, nonetheless, unwilling to know that his partner’s murderer has walked free. Whatever his motivation is, be it business or some unspoken and mostly unindicated attachment to Archer, he does not sit idly by. He actively reports Bridget to the police, despite all her pleas of love.

Protagonist’s Fate:
In “The Public Enemy,” Tom Powers dies at the hands of a rival gang. He does indeed get his “just desserts,” but what is especially powerful is that it does not happen at the hands of the law. The life of a gangster is so dangerous that rivals are a greater threat than the police could ever be.

In “The Maltese Falcon,” Sam Spade solves the mystery and has no trouble with the police. He does have to turn over a woman he could potentially love. In this circumstance, the true “criminals” aren’t the protagonist, but are the supporting characters. While there is some justice in that two murderers are arrested, these two murderers are not really the power players in the scheme. Gutman escapes to continue his quest for the Falcon. He has power and he gets in no trouble with the law despite being ultimately responsible for all three deaths and a great deal of robbery.

Protagonist’s Problems:
Tom Powers’s problems appear to be psychological. While he is interested in crime because it brings him money, he seems to do it more for fun than anything else. He has a very supportive mother and, when we see him as a child, does not appear to be lacking for anything materially. He does, however, seem to have a troubled relationship with his father, talking back even as his father beats him. We also repeatedly see that he has a difficult relationship with his brother, who seems “perfect,” as he works a legitimate job full-time, attends night school, and enlists in the Marines. Tom possibly enters into a life of crime to forge a unique identity for himself, to separate himself from his father and brother.

Sam Spade’s problems appear to be material. He only gets involved with the case of the Maltese Falcon for profit, and at no point does he seem psychologically or emotionally invested in it. It’s all money to him, and as long as he gets paid, he seems satisfied.

“The Public Enemy” and “The Maltese Falcon” serve as prime examples of their respective genres. In “The Public Enemy,” we see an optimistic character living in a world where justice is served, whether by the law or by fate. In “The Maltese Falcon,” we see a hard-boiled, fatalistic man who lives in a world turned by money, where if you are powerful enough you can get away with murder.

Unclassified Observations:
I couldn’t quite make this fit in in any of the other categories, but it seems to me that the lives of Tom Powers and Sam Spade seem intimately tied to their geographical location. Chicago and San Francisco are not just any places; they each have a unique character of their own. I look forward to paying closer attention to this theme of location as it may play out in other gangster cycle and noir films.
Background: The book Panorama du Film Noir Américain, by Raymond Borde and Étienne Chaumeton, written in 1955, was the first text to classify film noir as a unique style. The first chapter of the book, "Towards a Definition of Film Noir," provides a list of characteristics present in noir films.

Thesis: The first season of Veronica Mars fits this oldest definition of film noir.

1. Presence of Crime - In the first episode alone we have:
a. Weevil's crew stealing from Wallace
b. [Lawyer]'s client wanting to peg someone for illegality regarding a liquor license
c. Lily Kane's murder, which will be THE crime for the series
d. the rape
e. Veronica framing Logan
f. Logan vandalizing Veronica's car
g. Weevil's vandalizing of an 09er's car
h. sheriffs trading sex for "legality"

2. Criminal's Point of View - ?

3. Moral Determinism:
a. The police (sheriff's dept) are certainly not nice, upstanding guys. Cf. the response to Veronica's request for a rape investigation, the treatment of Keith Mars. They don't get the job done. Also, they do favors (Seventh Veil).
b. PI walks the line between lawful and not - snooping; Veronica framing Logan.

4. unstable alliances in the underworld:
a. Veronica's relationship with Weevil

5. ambivalence of characters:
a. Veronica and her very own brand of justice
b. victims are not above suspicion - Lily, while she may not have deserved her death, is hardly an "innocent" victim
c. femme fatale - There is a whole essay here about Duncan and Logan and reversal of gender tropes.

6. "Film noir has renovated the theme of violence":
a. no fair fights - money, shady dealings in Neptune
b. varying methods of cruelty/torment - "high school is hell" played out in every way imaginable (duct tape, video broadcast, etc)
c. anxiety derived from plot twists - with each reveal (thinking specifically of Logan and the drugs and then the camera), the audience becomes more anxious

7. "In a true film noir, the bizarre is inseparable from what might be called the uncertainty of motivations."
- dream-like quality of film style and sequence of events
- the nightmare that is Veronica's life for the past year
- lots can be made of Logan's behavior and his possible motivations

8. Alienation
- Veronica vs. the rest of the world

"All the films of this cycle create a similar emotional effect: that state of tension instilled in the spectator when the psychological reference points are removed."