Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones: The Epic World of Norma Desmond – An Alternative Guide to Watching Hollywood Epics – Part 1

At the moment I’m writing a book. It is called Designs on the Past: How Hollywood Created the Ancient World. It is all about movie-making in Hollywood and movie-watching in twentieth-century America (and Britain). All of the movies I explore in the body of the book are classified as ‘epics’ – a distinct and popular cinematic genre which played a central role in twentieth-century filmmaking and defined the ancient world for generations of spectators. Designs on the Past will provide a comprehensive study of how epic films were made during the period 1916-1965. The book examines issues of film-promotion, the casting of actors, set design, costume, hair and make-up design, music and sound, script, editing, and post-production marketing. The book keeps one vital point in mind: Hollywood film making was an industry and films were primarily made and sold as financial ventures. Sure, Hollywood movies could have integrity and artistic flair, but epic films, with their grandiose budgets, rarely took artistic risks; epics were the most conservative and conventional of the movies produced during the Golden Age of Hollywood.

I’m mad about old-time Hollywood. I collect pressbooks, original memorabilia, autographs of the stars, designs… All of these things are helping me put the book together. I love epic movies and I’m not ashamed to say that I am a product of overdosing on epics (like Ben Hur, Cleopatra and Quo Vadis) when I was a child. The more I watched epic movies, the more I became attuned to the ‘language’ of the genre – the conventions which traditionally combined to make the epics ‘Epic’. I became familiar with the works of the movie stars who performed in epics, the directors who created them, and the designers who visualised them – and as I did I came to realize the deep impact which epic films had on contemporary American filmmakers and cinema audiences.

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Sasha-Mae Eccleston: Doing the Right Thing in Chi-Raq (2015)

Like the iconic song solicited for it, Spike Lee’s film Do The Right Thing (1989)(hereafter, DRT), highlights the competing voices and values underlying the banal term ‘community’. Using a heat-wave as metaphor, it follows the increasingly tense relationships between individuals on a Brooklyn block. Tensions erupt, NYPD officers kill a young black male, and Sal’s Famous Pizza burns to the ground.

DRT illuminates how individual, heated exchanges are merely the peak of a massive subterranean mountain. Its plot covers 24 hours, the setting less than a square mile. But, direct address and Lee’s ‘signature shot’, for example, interrupt realism with surrealism. These techniques and others make it difficult to abstract generalized truth, whether about a racialized Other or about a sibling, from one perspective and, as a result, moral imperatives: how does one do the right thing and to whom is that owed?

The film garnered both acclaim and criticism as fundamentally neoliberal fare. That an African-American man directed, wrote, produced and acted in a film populated by mostly non-white actors deepens the film’s significance in an industry that rarely uses people of color to drive plot. Yet, as bell hooks explained, Lee avoids tackling race as a gendered phenomenon. Moreover, because the film focuses on spectacular violence, brazen utterance, and interpersonal conflict, entrenched structural racism remains untouched. In other words, Lee doesn’t go particularly far down the mountain once he uncovers it exists.

large_CHIRAQ_TEASERS_FINISHED_HALFSIZE_lowres1446591776Lee’s challenging 2015 film Chi-Raq rehashes DRT on many fronts.[1] Drawing on Aristophanes’ Lysistrata and its perceived contemporary legacy, Chi-raq portrays a neighborhood negotiating America’s gun violence epidemic. Following a Black child’s murder, gang-affiliated women ‘sex-strike’ for peace. This time Chicago provides the setting, not Lee’s native Brooklyn, and Kevin Wilmott adapts the ancient Greek comedy alongside Lee. They versify most of the dialogue and inject humor into their adamantly labeled satire (instead of, as some deem appropriate, tragedy).

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Clytemnestra in your living room? Greek Tragedy on the Small Screen

Picture3It’s not often that the ancient Greek adulteress and murderer graces the cover of the Radio Times – still less often does she wear a costume that combines Minoan art with Doctor Who.  But Diana Rigg’s 1979 performance as Clytemnestra was just one of dozens of extraordinary TV events enjoyed by audiences in Britain between 1958 and 1990.  During these years, British TV channels regularly screened productions of Greek tragedy, beaming the ancient stories of war, revenge, and heroism directly into the home.  In spring 2017 the Department of Classics at the University of Reading is hosting a unique opportunity to watch three films of Greek tragedy that were first shown on the small screen.

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Amanda Potter: Putting Audience Reception Centre Stage in Classical Reception Studies

Picture1From a very young age I was fascinated by all things ancient Roman and Greek, fuelled by my consumption of films made before I was born like Ben Hur (1959) and Cleopatra (1963), which were broadcast on British television in the 1970s.  I found these stories exciting and exotic, and more information (with pictures) was available in the Ladybird books that I collected.  An early memory as a very young child is of playing at being Antony with my plastic helmet and sword.  I was never interested in being Cleopatra; in those days I thought that Cleopatra spent all her time in a bath of asses’ milk, looking like Amanda Barrie in Carry On Cleo (1964), which seemed a very dull existence.  Filled with Roman bravado I hit a neighbour’s fence with my plastic sword repeatedly.  When he told me that he would smack me if I did it again, I, of course, called his bluff, and the episode ended in tears.  A lesson gained from this encounter was that engaging with the ancient world could cause me pain as well as pleasure, but this did not put an end to my interest. Continue reading

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Gideon Nisbet: On not getting round to watching the 2016 Ben-Hur

I didn’t see Timur Bekmambetov’s Ben-Hur when it was at the cinemas (not that it hung around long). Meant to; would probably have had fun; just never got around to it. Doubtless I’ll pick it up on DVD once it’s dropped in price. What’s happened to me?

Back in the day, I would have been there like a shot: professional duty. My way into classical reception studies, way back in the late 1990s, was filling in for Maria Wyke (of Projecting the Past fame), which in part meant teaching Rome in Film. I was a film nut already so it didn’t seem like a big deal. Back then, of course, ‘Rome in Film’ was mostly what we were doing; we were still figuring out, mostly through trial and error, what Classical Reception meant, or might come to mean. Though that gig, I lucked into an invitation to write a book on (daring innovation!) cinematic representations of the other Class. Civ., called Ancient Greece and Film in Popular Culture. I still vividly remember the sinking feeling I got part-way through Oliver Stone’s Alexander (2004): ‘I am going to have to watch this TWICE. For Science.’ Let no-one say classical reception is the easy option.
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Alex McAuley: Resurrecting the War on Terror in Risen (2016)


After languishing in film and television obscurity for several decades, biblical stories have made a remarkable comeback in the past decade or so – thanks in no small part to the blockbuster success of The Passion of the Christ (2004).  Many other productions have followed in its wake, some larger (Exodus, Noah), some smaller (The Nativity, Sant’Agostino, The Young Messiah), but the general trend is clear: the Bible is back. But in the midst of the ‘War on Terror’, this is an odd phaenomenon: while on the one hand some major films like Agora have cast Early Christianity in the same fundamentalist light as contemporary religious extremists, on the other hand we see a proliferation of overtly religious films and TV series geared towards a religious (predominantly American Protestant) audience. In an era of increasing scepticism or perhaps wariness towards religion in general, it’s fascinating to see over(t)ly preachy big-budget productions like The Bible appear on The History Channel, of all places, only to be followed up by the brilliantly-named A.D.: The Bible Continues on NBC.

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Upcoming Film Season in Reading (Jan-Feb 2017)


A film season presented by the Department of Classics
in collaboration with Reading Film Theatre
and the Department of Film, Theatre and Television
All films will be shown in the Minghella Building 

Greek tragedy is ancient but always new because the classic plays offer so many ways to explore our contemporary predicaments.  Between 1958 and 1990 British TV showed dozens of films of Greek tragedy, beaming stories of war, revenge, and heroism directly into the home.  This season allows us to revisit some of the most exciting and historic productions, linked by the theme of the Trojan War.

  • Iphigenia at Aulis.  Theatre Night, BBC 1990.  Dir. Don Taylor.  With Imogen Boorman, Roy Marsden, Fiona Shaw, Tim Woodward.  120 min.

image from Iphigenia WEDNESDAY 25TH JANUARY 7 PM 
Introductory talk by Dr Amanda Wrigley

  • Agamemnon: Part One of The Serpent Son.  BBC 1979.  Dir. Bill Hays.  With Helen Mirren, Denis Quilley, Diana Rigg. 95 min.

Diana Rigg the_serpent_son_02

Introductory talk by Prof. Barbara Goff


  • ElectraITV 1962.  Dir. Joan Kemp-Welch.  With Aspasia Papathanasiou, Georgia Saris.  58 min.  Greek languageRondiris Electra

    Introductory talk by Dr Anastasia Bakogianni
    (DOORS OPEN AT 6.30)


For more information please contact:
Barbara Goff, Department of Classics, b.e.goff@reading.ac.uk


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Jo Paul: Was Ben-Hur Really an Epic Fail?

Last month, I kicked off our new film and TV theme with my post on why many recent ancient world films have been so disappointing. Since those musings were prompted by this summer’s blockbuster-that-wasn’t, Ben-Hur, I promised I’d follow up by sharing some further thoughts on that film.

Now, this is not intended to be a comprehensive review, and it’s certainly not a ‘considered scholarly response’. As my colleague Kim Shahabudin pointed out in her comments on my post, quick-response blogs aren’t necessarily suited to careful reflection, not least when the film’s only been seen once. But they are, I think, a good way of trying out ideas, and perhaps sparking a few thoughts to which later posts in this blog series might return.

Poster for Ben-Hur (2016)

Poster for Ben-Hur (2016)

My first Ben-Hur thought was to do with the importance of all of the ‘packaging’ that surrounds film releases, particularly in terms of marketing and media attention. When I first saw the widespread advertising for Ben-Hur, alarm bells started ringing: the poster was formulaic (sepia-toned hero, Trajan font) and seemed to reveal a rather desperate desire to convince audiences that here was a bona fide blockbuster. But the first reviews (summed up by The Guardian’s one-star verdict, ‘Chariots of dire’) were anything but convinced, and so it was with extreme reluctance that I headed to the cinema one grey Monday morning. Continue reading

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Jo Paul: Confessions of a Classics Cinephile

One of the reasons why I love working on classical receptions is that there’s always so much new material to get stuck into.  While colleagues working on, say, classical literature are left fantasising about the discovery of new fragments – and are only very occasionally granted their heart’s desire, as with the recent Sappho papyri – those of us who work on modern receptions of antiquity are never short of new subjects. And in the world of cinematic antiquities, these new subjects have, in recent years, just kept on coming. Continue reading

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Henry Stead: And My Story Begins in Russia


Recently back from Russia, Henry Stead (Open) tells of some of his experiences in St. Petersburg this summer and reflects on beginning his new research project, Brave New Classics, which investigates the impact of the Russian Revolution on British classics until 1956:

“… I was in school all morning, but the afternoons were my own – and since I was there for work, work is what I did (well, most of the time…). My second objective — after the language learning — was to conduct interviews with local researchers, locate libraries and archives, hunt down early Soviet classical translations, and generally soak up what I could of the prevailing attitudes towards my major research questions.

One of the most useful things I did in week two of my stay was given to me as homework by Stanislav. It was to write an introduction in Russian to Brave New Classics, explaining why I was in Russia and what I wanted to find out. The early stages of a new research project are haunted by these questions: What exactly is it that I want to know? What is my hypothesis? And what the hell are my research questions? The limited vocabulary and syntax I had at my disposal forced me to cut to the chase:

‘I am in Russia because I study the relationship between communism and ancient culture. I am interested in the influence of early Soviet cultural practice (and policy) on British culture. Over the next few years I will write a book on this theme and, of course, my story begins in Russia.’ This was enough to get the conversation started, at least…”

Read more on his research project’s blog: http://www.bravenewclassics.info/index.php/2016/07/29/numer1/


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