Sunday, 4 April 2010

Trash of the Titans

I nipped off to see the remake of Clash of the Titans down the old kino the other day, having loved the 1981 film as a kid---Laurence Olivier as Zeus, Arsula Undress as Aphrodite---what wasn't to like? I resisted taking along a half-bottle of whiskey and a box of chocs, as recommended by Gwyneth Lewis in her Sunbathing in the Rain: A Cheerful Book about Depression, but it was a close-run thing. It was that kind of evening, and I wanted trash.

And trash I duly got. What a meretricious crock o'shyte this remake was! I sat there in the fetid, popcorn-scented dark rolling my eyes at the screen. The first thing that's wrong with it is the absurd manufactured plot-device of having human beings rebelling against the Olympians for their arbitrary rule (what-ev-ah), a feature wholly, unimaginably alien to the religion and culture of the ancient world. Ditto the importation of concepts like redemption, salvation, and sin, all put into the mouth of a kind of loony proto-Christian sadhu, which map very awkwardly indeed onto pre-Christian culture---even this hyperkinetic imaginary version thereof. Hades, of course, was the principle victim of this polytheological reformation, inevitably being cast as a kind of devil-figure. Being played by Ralph Fiennes as a cross between Richard III and his own Lord Voldemort didn't help. Whilst gloomy and unloved in classical mythology, Hades nevertheless doesn't merit rewriting as a kind of evil, hunchbacked creep.

The casting was deeply idle---see Fiennes, above---with Sam Worthington playing the same identikit dim beefcake as he had in Avatar complete with unGreek crewcut; poor Polly Walker, magnificent bust straining under its sheath of gold crepe, simply reprised her role as Rome's Atia under a different name, one eye no doubt fixed on the paycheck. Throughout there were cinematographic 'borrowings', shall we say, from better and more imaginative pieces of epic film-making, which made the film feel cheap and whorish. The Stygian witches, for example, were embarrassing rip-offs of Guillermo del Toro's signature style of monster, with their noseless, eyeless faces and elongated, black-tipped fingers:

Much too was shamelessly ripped from Peter Jackson's LOTR trilogy---the shots of Perseus on his flying horse ducking and diving after some leathery-winged nasties were plain copies of the battle of Minas Tirith, as were the mobile souks erected on the back of the giant eliphaunts, sorry, scorpions. Gemma Arteton's Io (shorn here of any bovine associations) was simply a kind of Arwen redux, complete with the kind of deep, breathy/sexy posh English voice that the lovely Liv Tyler affected so well for the role, quite different from her normal East Coast squeak.* Well-draped if a bit heavy on the Touche Eclat, Arterton had a kind of Junoesque quality which struck me as authentically Greek (just about the only thing in the film that was.) Here she is, wearing, well, let's just call it an 'item':

The casting highlights, on the other hand, were my favourite actor, the gorgeous Hans Matheson, and poor old Nicholas Hoult, fresh from sporting a soft-focus angora jumper in Tom Ford's A Single Man. As I watched the pair of them clambering about in deep tans and leather miniskirts, I reflected wistfully upon the Greek words erastes and eromenos, which certainly whiled away some of the film's longeurs.

The saddest thing about the remake, I decided, was the intermittently stunning art direction. Everywhere you looked, there was the luminous spectacle and inspired design which shows that a version of the Iliad, the Odyssey, or the Aeneid could be done which would enrapture the senses. If a heightened, mythic version of the ancient world can be done this convincingly on screen, then why not film something worth filming?! You could do all three epics in sets of six 45-minute episodes, if you employed clever, literate screenwriters who would be prepared to really familiarize themselves with the poems. A pipe dream, I suppose. But why couldn't Dido's palace in Aeneid 1 and 4 be like the Great Hall of Cepheus and Cassiopeia, which even had dancing girls sporting passable imitations of Minoan costume? There was a dreadful scene in which Gemma Arterton and Sam Worthington have a bit of a flirt in the hold of Charon's barge on the Styx (a genuinely new thought, that), but as they stood on the rickety jetty looking out over the misty river---her impassive in a white woollen cloak, him in armour---I thought: in a film-version of the Aeneid, Aeneas and the Sibyl could look just like this. But then the silly bastards went and spoiled it by having a Charon who looked like something out of Pirates of the Caribbean. OK, he was a kind of medieval Death-figure even in the original, but that's no excuse. Charon has a beard, people; his eyes are like fixed flames, according to Virgil, in a very strange phrase.**

For all that, there were some gorgeous touches. Pegasus (with or without the definite article) was impressive: we got to see some pegasikoi too, as it were---little colts with lovely downy wings like goslings. Medusa looked oddly Art Nouveau, more glassy Franz von Stuck than archaic apotropaion, but she wasn't half bad. And when she turned someone to stone, all the snakes on her head reared and hissed at the same time, which was a nice detail. There was also a rare moment of genuine intertextual humour when Perseus and his men were searching through the armoury of Argos for equipment. Perseus turns up a ridiculous mechanical owl, clearly the unbelievably naff 'Bubo' of the 1981 original. As it clicks and whirrs he asks what the hell it is, totally bemused. 'Just leave it', snaps the Argive captain, wearily.

The original Bubo, however annoying, did give the opportunity for a skillful cameo from Susan Fleetwood's glacially cerebral Athena (below), the eighties film giving a much better sense of Olympus as a divine society than the remake, which gave the gods' individual personalities very short shrift.

Up on the sacred mountain---the architecture of which looked a bit like the Skylon from the 1951 Festival of Britain---we saw a kind of golden-armoured Apollo (HE'S A BLOND, YOU IDIOTS), and old Julian Bashir from Deep Space 9 made a very improbable appearance as Hermes. No one else had a speaking part: no Hera, no Athena, no Ares, no nuffin'. Liam Neeson blustered about, Irish accent coming and going, looking very much the same as he had thirty years before as Gawain in John Boorman's Excalibur, turning up every so often as an Odinic wanderer, having blundered in (like the Kraken) from the wrong mythology.

A mystifying experience. All in all, my advice would be: if you're going to see it, don't see it sober, and secondly, watch the well-acted if campy original first.

* * *

*Never understood this. Most American women under thirty-five sound a bit like cartoon mice to my British ear. ('Sweeweewheedle, like, wheedlewheet?!!') My old housemate had an American friend with exactly this kind of abrasive, rape-alarm voice; I remember being down the far end of my old garden weeding when the words 'AND MY BREASTS WERE, LIKE, REALLY REALLY SOOOOORE?!!!!!!!!!!!!!' came shattering jaggedly through the air outside as the window was opened.

**stant lumina flamma, Aeneid 6.231. This is an odd, compressed, construction, though the meaning is clear: 'his eyes stand with flame', literally, but apparently something like 'his eyes are fixed and fiery'. I often wonder if this isn't a use of the 'standing' verb as a kind of verb 'to be', analogous to the use of the (directly cognate) atá in Irish.


Matthew Roy said...

It's a great shame. I have not seen the film yet, however I can still feel the indignation of watching Disney's "Hercules" as a child. Pegasus made from clouds and an unholy mixing of Roman and Greek names. Again, it's a great shame.
Should have a go at the original "Clash of the Titans". Is this the one with claymation monsters or is that "Jason and the Argonauts"?
"Tapadh leibh" for your blog. I really enjoy it.

Mar sin leibh.

Bo said...

I'm glad you do! Many thanks for the comment.

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