Breakfast with Pandora caters to everyone interested in ancient Greek and comparative mythology, good stories, the craft of writing, food, theology, education, and other humane things. Ask a question at teenage underscore heroes at yahoo dot com.
(This is a meme, so consider yourself tagged [this means you, Michael Leddy]-- and skip to the bottom if you want to avoid the preliminaries.)
Image: The Roman national epic in Victorian art.
An eon ago, before that Troy thing with Brad Pitt, there was a made-for-TV Hallmark Hall of Fame mini-series that dramatized the Odyssey.
Remember it? The one with Armand Assante as Odysseus, Bernadette Peters as Circe, Vanessa Williams as Calypso, and Greta Scacchi as Penelope? Anyone? Anyone?
Turns out that was back in 1997. Goodness, how time flies.
Back then, mythology geek that I was, and much younger and more idealistic, I decided to have an ancient Greek mythology neighborhood experience with it.
I invited everyone on our cul-de-sac to come see it on our TV, but with a twist: I determined to take the TV outdoors, sit it on a box on the street, and spread out blankets on the grassy slope of our lawn. My scheme was to recreate the ancient Greek practice of outdoor entertainment, making a kind of electronic Theater of Dionysus.
Idea guy that I was, I didn't care how I was going to acquire and spool 50 feet of extension cord and cable out to where the TV was to be perched. But we finally managed it, with much long-suffering from then-spouse, and some neighbors consented to indulge my fantasy.
It was a great scheme, but the experience was a bust. The movie was long, full of commercials, and stupid. Assante was a stiff, and they messed up a great story that was already a screenplay almost as it had been originally written. Plus, at the end of the 3 hours or whatever, we were only halfway through the two-day Event.
My neighbors politely declined my invitation to come back the next night. They were already mosquito-bitten enough, and had earned several cups of sugar and other favors in plenty.
Several years later, with Troy, big Hollywood messed up the Iliad. Now there is only one great ancient epic to go: the Aeneid.
The Aeneid is a downer, so they will have to do a lot of fixing of it if they want to make it palatable to American audiences. But it is also the national epic of Rome, which gives it a great hook.
Aeneas, the national hero of Rome, is your basic Trojan hero minding his own business during the Trojan War, when the Greeks use the Trojan Horse to penetrate his city and destroy it.
Conflict. Violence. Screaming. Fire. Think Troy, but without that confusing ankle thing.
Aeneas has to flee, though he'd rather die fighting. Much to his chagrin, the gods have designated him as the father of the Roman people.
Aeneas and his ragtag band of followers-- an idea stolen from Battlestar Galactica-- go on a long mission to find their new home. Along the way, Queen Dido pops up as a love interest for Aeneas. Another tragedy ensues, as it is impossible for her and Aeneas to be together. Dido ends up with a white flag upon her door.
Finally Aeneas and company come to Italy, where more conflict awaits Aeneas, and a villain-- the Italian superstar warrior Turnus. In the poem, this ends tragically as well, since Turnus ends up not being such a bad guy after all. But Hollywood can get him a Black Stetson and everything will be fine.
Now, with all this going on, there's got to be about 12 optioned screenplays going around So Cal waiting for the right investors.
So let's get a jump on the competition. Who do you want to see in the prime roles of this blockbuster epic?
Aeneas... the reluctant hero... a family man, a single father, good with a sword when he has to be, but much more interested in peace.
Dido... exotic Carthaginian queen... a widow forced into the executive position by the death of her husband... a great leader, noble city-builder who falls tragically for a man she can never have.
Turnus... young Italian hothead... angry at this newcomer who has stolen his bride-to-be, Lavinia, because of some cockeyed prophecy... monstrously talented at the art of war, but young-- so young...
Anchises... Aeneas' father... an inspiration to Aeneas, and a source of great sorrow... he dies before the proto-Romans come to Italy, but Aeneas meets him in the underworld, where he tells his son about the coming greatness of Rome...
Ascanius/Iulus... Aeneas' son... a cute little kid who grows up throughout the years of the story... by the end, he is a young man himself...
Lavinia... the daughter of King Latinus, the intended of Turnus, who is given to Aeneas after a prophecy tells Latinus that she should be wed to a stranger who comes from overseas... She should be pretty and young, but keep in mind she has no lines...
The Olympians... How do we handle them... yes, they are characters in the epic, especially the jealous Juno, who holds a vicious grudge against the Trojans...
Have at it! Tell the world who you'd like in these roles. And add other roles from the story (e.g., Anna, the lady standing in the painting above) as you see fit.
Question: why sit inside a lecture hall during a perfectly
lovely day off and listen to people read from and talk about
their writing instead of going outside and playing softball?
a perfectly lovely day in Greece.
you've got a chance for a wonderful reunion with some old and
dear writing friends (hi Bob,Lyn, and Frankie!).
Bob provided companionship, commentary and feedback as we listened to writers hold forth on
their craft and celebrate their successes. A highlight was Ron
who are engaging and extremely talented. Rash's
Serenais a firecracker, and
Smith's new set of short
like a winner.
Elizabeth Stroutprovided me the most
food for thought in her keynote address last night. She is the
latest thing, a favorite of Oprah, and had an adoring crowd
eating out of her hand as she read fromOlive
Kittredge, a set of linked short
stories that had heretofore flown under my radar.
out on stage looking like an aging starlet who'd spent the last
month at the beach. Darkly tan, she'd twisted her blonde hair,
shining like new straw, into something resembling a do. She had
on a ruffled white blouse and oversized black slacks, and
everything about her was fashionably rough, wrinkled, and
disheveled. Her only concession to writerly appearance was her
thick-framed black glasses, which were absolutely the height of
chic. Kate Hepburn comes to Chapel Hill after a stay onBald Head
writers who are basking in the glow, she seemed happy and
perfectly at ease in front of the packed house, and fielded
questions such as whether her characters took on a life of their
own and told her things. "I'm pretty sure I'm making my
characters say things," Strout said, eyebrow raised.
event for me was Strout's take on the importance of fiction--
that is, well-written stories on a page, electronic or not. You'd
think that this would be obvious, but it isn't anymore, what with
everyone crazy for reality shows, video games, and anything other
than a book.
She began by
pointing out how whenever people come out of the subway or their
plane has landed, they immediately call someone on their cell
phones. "I'm here, I exist," is what people want to tell someone.
Everyone is craving connection, a sense that they matter, that
they are not alone.
Strout says, helps people to locate themselves in the world.
Whenever a reader identifies with a character in a story, it
creates a connection, community, and a sense that the reader
matters, regardless of who and where they are.
I have been
attempting throughout my career on writing about mythology to
point this out, especially in myonline
courseon Greek mythology. Good
stories make people connect and cohere.
Now, I have
focused mainly on the tribal aspects of good stories. I define
mythology as a set of good stories that are good for a particular
culture. Each culture tells its own stories as a way of setting
itself apart from others, of creating and maintaining its
character, its ethos. A culture's myths do not necessarily
translate to other parts of the world. In other words, I do not
subscribe to the idea of the archetype-- the notion that
characters and stories are basically the same the world
there no universal stories?" Bob asked me as we walked back to
the parking lot in the late summer sun.
that wouldn't be myth," I said. "That would be..."
What would it be?
be fiction," I finally decided.
realized that like Elizabeth Strout, I did feel that the role of
the author, the novelist, the short story writer, was very
important to the world.
author attempts to connect us as human beings, rather than as
members of a tribe, that, to me, is an act of love. It is so easy
for us to sort ourselves into groups, into us versus them. I
think it's perfectly natural.
difficult is to reach out to other groups and acknowledge what
makes us the same.
other benefits, too, that Strout did not mention. Maybe the most
important is depth and thoughtfulness. In myth, you are looking
to have people say yes to your world view as quickly as possible
and over and over again. With fiction, an author is trying to say
that things are complicated, messy, and take time to resolve-- if
they can be resolved.
aspect of fiction is probably a significant reason why, in our
nanosecond culture, no one wants to read books anymore.
Maybe all of
this is just a snobby and underhanded way of saying that High
Literature ("fiction") is better than Popular and Pulp Junk
If it is,
that's okay with me. I do like both myth and fiction, as I've
defined them here (or myth and author, as I suggest
elsewhere). But I salute those
who are writing that definition of fiction. It's a losing battle
for us to try to find our humanity rather than our tribalness.
Still, it's worth it.
There are a few movies I watch over and over again: Defending Your Life, when I need a boost of encouragement; Vertigo, when I'm nostalgic for the old San Francisco; When Harry Met Sally, when I need to be guaranteed a laugh; The Princess Bride, when I need to quote along some funny lines; Sideways, when I need to be reminded I am not as bad off as some people.
Another one of these movies is The Natural, the self-consciously mythological baseball movie by one of my favorite directors, Barry Levinson, with one of the best performances Robert Redford has ever given. It tells the story of the ultimate underdog, Roy Hobbs, a 35-year old rookie who once had the chance to be "the best there ever was" but now just wants to get a piece of his dream 16 years after a near-fatal moral error.
Back when I had ambitions of publishing a scholarly book on Greek mythology and American cinema, I wrote a 6000-word chapter comparing the movie with Pindar's Fourth Pythian Ode, which is an extended telling of the myth of Jason and the quest for the Golden Fleece.
I liked the idea of Roy Hobbs as Jason, his teammates as the Argonauts, and the Golden Fleece as the championship of the league, which is symbolized by a "bit of cloth," the pennant.
Over the weekend I popped this one into my VCR because there were no decent sports on television, and did a little pleasure research with it. Apparently Barry Levinson used Arthurian legend as a template for the story, which he adapted from the much darker-- and brilliant-- Bernard Malamud novel. But now I read that on a DVD extra feature someone is comparing the movie to the Odyssey.
The movie is Arthurian because the team Roy Hobbs plays for is the New York "Knights." And it is Odyssean because of the character of Iris Gaines (Glenn Close, a smashing cast), Roy's long-lost faithful Penelope who hasn't seen him for 16 years.
But I shouldn't go on with these pedestrian insights. My 6000-word chapter is absolutely the last word.
Well. It's been nine years since I wrote that chapter. Let me excerpt something from it, the poor thing:
There is nothing more entertaining than a good sports story.
An exciting finish, unlikely turns of momentum, all of these get our blood
racing. But to be good, that kind of story must also have a moral dimension. We
must be able to root honestly for an individual or a team. It seems that we
consider victory satisfying only when the worthy person or team achieves it.
And in the stories we've just considered, it seems that the worthy person must
be someone tied intimately to the family, to the things of civilization. If all
these ingredients are present, it almost obligates the storyteller to cast his
tale in a positive light.
It was a first draft.
Nine years later, I think of The Natural in a more postmodern light, as a story told by a certain author in a certain time. The mythological elements-- which include lightning bolts, special bats (swords, to bring back Arthur for a sec), the death of the father, the unknown son who comes to light, the good woman and the bad woman, good and evil generally, the quest, the moral error, the death and three-day wait for the resurrection moment, the fireworks, the redemption (just to name a few things)-- are put in there on purpose, partly as a way of telling a good story, but mostly as an affectionate tribute to those elements and to the sweetness of American mythology overall.
American cinematic mythology is what I really mean, and that post-Depression, I think. We got addicted to stories with happy endings during that prolonged economic tragedy, and we never got off of them. Barry Levinson is acknowledging that in The Natural.
I finally realized that The Natural wasn't going to be mythology for others as it is for me when one recent academic year I showed the clip of the climactic scene to a bunch of teenage heroes. It is, for me, a baseball and mythology fan, one of the greatest moments in cinematic history. To them, it was a random bit of celluloid without context or interest.
No one in the class had seen the movie, and not very many were interested in baseball. I think if they were to see the entire movie, it might move some of them. But there is something antique about it now that I don't think would translate.
It has been, after all, 25 years since the movie was made. Few things last that long in today's Internet daze.
I wonder if you saw it, and what you thought of it. If you weren't alive in 1984, did you see it on VHS or DVD? Did you know it even existed before this blog post? These are the questions that old scholars need to answer.
Also, you have a little time for things that have eluded you in the first hectic weeks of teaching teenage heroes again: watching a movie here and there.
On Friday night, it was the original Parent Trap with Hayley Mills in her dual role as young adolescent twin sisters Susan Evers and Sharon McKendrick. In 1961, when The Parent Trap was released, audiences marveled at the special effect of splicing Mills onto opposite sides of the movie frame to give the illusion that she was actually two people.
In 2009, my viewing companions and I marveled at a different thing: spousal domestic abuse by the wife.
I had never watched this movie all the way through. For some reason I had never gotten beyond the peekaboo-dress-cutting scene (I can't explain it-- watch it yourself if you haven't already). This time I was there for the entire 129 minutes, and I mostly stayed awake.
The story of The Parent Trap revolves around the relationship of twins Susan and Sharon, who have been separated at the age of one and divided between their divorcing parents. Susan goes with father Mitch (Brian Keith) and Sharon goes with mother Maggie (Maureen O'Hara).
S&S are reunited at a summer camp, where after a few opening spitfire-works, come to realize they are sisters, and switch places in order to go to the other's home and see their other parent. Soon their scheme matures into a plan to get their parents back together, and as this is a Disney movie, you know the end without it being a spoiler.
Most of this is fun Disney stuff, but there is always a dark side to Mouse House picture-- witness, for example, the disturbing demises of moms in Bambi, Dumbo, and Finding Nemo.
About three-quarters of the way through Trap, divorcees Keith and O'Hara are having an argument in order to establish that they don't get along and that the separation was justified. Then, out of the blue, O'Hara drops Keith with a straight right to the eye, causing him to lose his taciturn rancher persona and transform himself into a whimpering puddle. Purple makeup assures that Keith's shiner is prominent for all to see.
Then, when the couple makes up, Keith says, "You can slug me in the face anytime you want."
Where is the 1950's All-American Macho Man made famous by all those westerns and detective films eaten up by post World War II audiences? Is this the first shot off the bow from the nascent feminist movement? Or is it another instance of well-documented Disney misogyny?
Whatever the answer, The Parent Trap is full of female manipulation, cat-fighting, and nice-nasty hissing and dissing, from Mills' twins themselves and their summer camp buddies (e.g. peekaboo dress-cutting) to O'Hara to Keith's gold-digging girlfriend (Joanna Barnes) and her mother (Linda Watkins), and even Keith's longtime maid (Una Merkel, of the famous "I don't say nothing" line).
It is as if the specter of divorce is so threatening that all femalekind must rise up either to end it or exploit it.
Especially since Brian Keith is loaded with money and looking to get swatted. You don't want to waste that type of horseflesh.
Ye Old Extra Notes
For a more contemporary view of divorce and parent-trap style remarriage, see Mrs. Doubtfire, a Touchstone (Disney) picture. I love Sally Field, I really do.
Here is a gathering of Internet opinions on Disney and dead moms.